Saturday, September 27, 2014

Protection from Cooties

One boy, two girls, and some candy wrappers

We arrived at the dance studio about ten minutes early and took our seats on a bench by the windows. A boy of about 14 stood to my right, a dozen or so candy wrappers scattered on the bench in front of him. The girls and I waited while dancers and parents came in and out of the lobby, while a woman typed quickly on her laptop, while two girls chatted about school, while the boy ate another piece of candy and added its wrapper to the rest.

With the candy finished, the boy moved across the room. His movements were unexpected and out of place for the smallish lobby. You see, he almost ran across the room, but at his height he only made about three steps before reaching the bottlenecked space between the lobby and the classrooms. The boy flapped his hands and hooted while he ran. Everyone noticed, though no one reacted. 

I went back to playing on my phone, and I didn't notice the boy had left until the two chatting girls were now on my right. One sat on the bench, then the taller, perhaps older girl said in a loud but disgusted hush, "That's where his candy was!"

The sitting girl jumped up. My heart sank.

Ignore, then gossip

In Firegirl by Tony Abbott, Jessica Feeney is the new girl in school. She arrives just after the start of the school year, and her teacher introduces her by saying, "There's something you need to know about Jessica." It turns out the Jessica has suffered extensive and severe burns, but that is all the seventh graders are told about her before she arrives in their small parochial school. The children react as you might expect - with apprehension. Jessica makes no effort to connect with her classmates, and they pretty much ignore her, in return. Behind her back, however, rumors fly. Disgusting things are said. Their resentment towards her builds. One kid refuses to hold her hand during their prayer circle. Her isolation continues.

I don't know how it ends, but since this book is written for young readers, I hope it ends well.

This mother's fears

My child looks different. Long-time readers know that Seconda has no hair due to alopecia areata. In a school of 700-some kids, there are students with glasses and students who write with their left hands and there are students with food allergies and there are students with emotional challenges and there are students who do not speak. Seconda is the only child without hair on her head. The fear that always lies in the back of my mind and sometimes comes to the forefront is that some other child will say, "Don't sit there! That's where she sat." It's that someone will refuse to hold her hand in some kind of school activity. It's that her classmates will pretty much ignore her to her face but let the rumors and disgusting comments fly behind her back.

It's a fear that has, for the most part, not come to fruition. For probably nine months of the year, the fears lie dormant in the way back of my mind because our school and our neighbors are everything I hope for when the fears rear up. I hope for a world where no one cares if you have no hair. I hope for a world where my family can go out without inducing stares. We have that in our small corner of the world, but when the fears rear up, I just wish I could somehow make the whole world aware of alopecia areata so that Seconda and I never have to have another conversation about it with others again. I mean, does anyone really talk about people wearing glasses to help their vision? No. Do people talk with wonder about a child who writes with her left hand? No. People see it and they just know. 


Roughly 2% of Americans, or about 4.5 million people, will be diagnosed with some form of alopecia areata in their lifetimes. An estimated 1 in 1000 children has alopecia areata. 

That's about 160,000 kids living with alopecia.

One out of every 68 children in the United States has an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

That's about 235,000 kids living with autism.

Around 300 children each day are treated by emergency departments for burn injuries, and 2 of those children die.

That's about 109,000 kids living with burn injuries.

Protection from cooties

The chatting girls in the dance studio acted as children do when another kid has "cooties". The characters in Firegirl treated Jessica Feeney the same way. They avoid the "affected" child and classify his things as unclean. They protect each other from catching the cooties themselves.

Maybe it's because my own child is at risk for a peer-diagnosed case of "cooties", but nevertheless I found myself sad for the chatting girls. Sure, I have empathy for the boy who left his candy wrappers out and ran across the lobby. The chatting girls, however, stayed on my heart because I wonder who is watching out for them. Who is watching out for their character, so that they might not diagnose "cooties" in another child?

Knowing better, doing better

A friend of mine who works as a special education teacher shared this video today. It is about a boy with non-verbal autism who delivered his school's graduation speech.

I saw the video and thought of the chatting girls again. Lectures to children about teaching others with respect rarely work. They are just too vague. Respect is something you know when you feel it. Our words for respect lack the nuance to really describe it. Respect is often confused with politeness, or simple obedience. True respect is about empathy, and people can't be lectured into empathic feelings.

Stories, however, whether true or fictional, can develop empathy. I think most of us recognize that truth just from our own experiences. Think of all the social media memes asking you to list the books you read that "stayed with you" the most. Think of the TV shows you watched as a child, as a teenager, as a college student. Which stayed with you? Which changed your worldview? Which confirmed it?

We have our personal anecdotes about the power of fiction to develop empathy, and we have scientific research as well. Researcher David Comer Kidd said, "What great writers do is turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others."

Empathy is about understanding the minds of others, and as with any other kind of knowledge, when you know better, you do better.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

From This Little Corner: Purpose

There are lots of heavy topics on my mind today, the 13th anniversary of the 9/11. I mourn for those killed that day. I mourn for those killed in the 13 years of war we've waged since. I sit in disbelief that last night, the eve of 9/11, President Obama announced a new war.

I'm thinking about Ray Rice, domestic violence, and toxic elements of our culture that have come into the light once again. I'm still thinking about Ferguson and American racism, especially as people around me debate the meaning of the Confederate battle flag after a high school student in a predominately white local high school waved it at a football game last week.

I think about all of that and more all day. I was thinking about the world in which we live and the world my daughters will grow into as I walked into the quiet house after taking Terza to school. I was thinking about all of that when I saw this:

Those bears have been loved, and continue to be loved, by three young people. Seeing those bears (and dog and lamb and Perry) arranged like this, knowing that not one of them were there when I came down this morning, remembering how every time Terza entered the room she brought a new bear with her, my purpose in this world came into focus once again.

That purpose is to create peace in this world for my daughters.

As far as purposes go, that's not earth-shattering, revolutionary, or even new to me. I've been working to create peace in this world my entire adult life, and the desire for peace is what fuels my volunteerism and civic involvement. It is what keeps me up at night.

But the way my thinking has kept me up at night has been a distorted view about creating peace. Of course peace starts at home, and I do credit myself and The Man of the House for creating a largely peaceful one. Our daughters' larger world is mostly peaceful, too, in that we have great food and shelter, good health, loving friendships and interesting hobbies. We have it good and I want that for everyone.

Peace is more than the absence of war and violence. When people have it good, they have peace. We have it good and I want that for everyone.

Let us create peace in this world, for everyone, every day.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Good Ol' Days of TV and The Benefits of Harry Potter

I don't know anyone who actively teaches their children to hate other people. Well, at least I don't think I know anyone who does that. Yet, kids still develop prejudices based on lots of types of stereotypes, don't they. How does that happen?

While I have been immersed in the stories from Ferguson, Missouri following the police-involved shooting death of an unarmed teenager, my thoughts continue to go to the disconnect so many people feel from fellow human beings. This ages-old human tendency to put other people in categories that separate, and to judge our own categories as preferable or superior to others, well, it just causes so much pain and suffering.

Growing up in a town whose founder designed everything to break down the idea of "other" between people gave me a strong sense of empathy for and connection with all people. Yet, I don't remember anyone specifically telling me that all people are equal. It is a lesson I learned over time, reinforced by countless people and messages from all around.

It's hard to even know how we learn values and world-views, right? I mean, it's not like you could honestly say "I learned my values in Mr. Jones' 11th grade history class. Lucky me, I got them all right then." So I found it really interesting to come across two news items this summer that reveal a bit about how we do develop our values.

First, I came across this NPR piece, "What 'The Golden Girls' Taught Us About AIDS."
Rose's dialogue embodies several misconceptions about HIV infection, pervasive at the time: that "people like her - an older, middle class, heterosexual, "innocent" woman - shouldn't get such a disease, that none of her friends will want to associate with her now, and that she is being punished for some kind of bad behavior.
To which Blanche thoughtfully replies, "AIDS is not a bad person's disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins.
All of those concepts about AIDS seem like big "well, duh" moments now. I bet my kids would have as hard a time imagining how people could treat those with HIV and AIDS the way they treated Ryan White, Pedro Zamora, and the more than 100,000 other people living with and dying of the disease in the 1989. I watched "The Golden Girls" regularly and can still sing the whole theme song. ("...and the card attached would say..." Sing it with me!)
But this is what The Golden Girls was so good at: bringing home those topics that often made people uncomfortable - racism, homosexuality, older female sexuality, sexual harassment, the homeless, addiction, marriage equality and more - and showing us how interconnected and utterly human we all are at any age. 
Reading this piece about one of my favorite shows made me long for that kind of art for my daughters, and it made me wonder what other shows served us well by tackling tough issues or showing culturally marginalized characters. "The Cosby Show", "Roseanne", "Will and Grace", "The Real World", and "I Love Lucy" re-runs all come to mind. For me, these shows all showed us our interconnectedness and our humanity. We don't watch a lot of TV in our family, so I truly do wonder if there are shows on now that do for today's viewers what my "good ol' days" of TV did for me.

While my children don't watch a lot of TV, they do read a lot of books. It made me very happy to read that many students who read the Harry Potter series had positive attitudes towards people in the LGBT and immigrant communities. (Unless the readers identified with Voldemort. Hmm.) Prima and Seconda have each read the entire series; Terza might begin it this year.

It's not really surprising that the shows we watch as children (and the commercials that air during the shows) as well as the books we read strongly shape our attitudes and values. What do the people selling cleaning products look like? Do you remember the controversy about a recent Cheerios ad? Do TV sitcom fathers remind you of any fathers you know in real life? What do the toy aisles of big box stores reveal about how children with male genitalia and children with female genitalia play? Does the evening news give you a certain idea about life in a particular city? Is there more to the story of that city?

As a parent, I am grateful for resources like A Mighty Girl and Common Sense Media which review books, shows, movies, and games with an eye towards the values and messages these media impart. I think of media consumption a lot like nutrition - you are what you eat, so make it good.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Few More Montana Thoughts

The Fort

On Rt. 287 in Cameron, just south of Pearson Road, you’ll find a few homes. 
You’d be forgiven if you mistake one for a junk yard.
Well, I’d forgive you, anyway.
You see, it’s not a junkyard.
It’s The Fort.
Rows of trashed cars and other metalstuff line the driveway.
Brown palisade fences surround the house.
First, though, is the warning sign -
Stay out.
Stay out.
Stay out. 
No Trespassing.
Your In Danger Here.


Night Sky

People asked, "Why Montana?"
Mountains and open space and not a lot of people
But most of all
We came for the night sky 
With its Milky Way and Perseids 
And more of the cosmos than we can view 
From lamplight-drenched suburbia

We came for stars
We got clouds
Night after night
No Milky Way, no cosmos
Save one dusky glimpse of the moon
Until, at the last,
A break in the clouds

Friday, August 8, 2014

Madison River Valley

Mountains and trees and a shallow river to delight my eyes

Quaking aspens, sister-trees standing together to welcome 

The deer, for sure, mama and two tykes who traverse the meadow between groves

Chickadees fly 'round like suburban kids at Sky Zone

Chip and Dale pay regular visits, looking for snacks, perhaps

Unexpectedly, a Broad-tailed Hummingbird did as well, buzzing the air by our heads - 

“Well if Hawk can, so can I.”

Yes, yes you can.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

#TBT: Only In Howard County

The Howard County Fair is on, which means it's time for another installment of Only In Howard County! Play along!

Only in Howard County... folks take any and every opportunity to vote for their local org/city/whatnot in an online poll bloggers and blog readers gather for drinks and tours and demos and connection

...can you and your friends from high school reunite at Clark's Farm, kids in tow, and see The Enchanted Forest pieces from your own childhoods

...can all the fifth graders in the county enjoy the epic learning experience that is Simulated Congressional Hearings we display the art of schoolchildren in our Mall, our Center for the Arts, and our County Government buildings we battle over books


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Detour, Or How a Flat Tire Was the Best Thing That Happened One Day

Vacationing while sick is never fun, especially if you’re a sea-level dweller with a chest cold in the mountains. The plan for our Montana vacation was to balance a lot of nothing-doing with a decent amount of time taking in the sights. The sights from our vacation rental being absolutely fulfilling on their own seemed like a two-for-one deal, a blessing for this sick mama. We slept until we were rested, ate until we were full, watched the mountains until we were bored, played until we needed to move. 

The house sits on twenty acres in a community of 20-acre plots, accessible only by gravel roads that, for almost five months of the year, are closed to all vehicles except for snowmobiles. It takes 15 minutes to get to pavement. The closest towns are at least 45 minutes away. We planned our meals and excursions accordingly. 

On our fourth day, with my chest cold still present and clouds persisting in the air, we packed a picnic and took a short drive to Wade Lake. After a short out-and-back along the shore, we ate lunch. It was not the full on, “rent a kayak and conquer the world” type of excursion Prima hoped for, but it was all I could do. Along the gravel drive home, the tire warning light illuminated. By the time we arrived, it had been forgotten.

Hilarity would ensue just two hours later when, stirred by a desire to look at some wildflowers in the yard, I went outside. Instead of flowers, a flat tire filled my view.

A flat tire. Forty-plus miles from town. On a mountain. In a rental car. 

The Man of the House took Prima out to change the tire while I called the rental company. After giving the customer service agent the requisite details, I began to explain the problem. "We are in Montana, at a vacation rental home in the mountains. A few minutes ago, we noticed a flat tire on the car. We changed it. Now what do we do?"

This scenario seemed unusually hard for the agent to grasp. At times she thought we were at our own home. At others, she assumed we were at a hotel. The entire phone call took longer than necessary for me, but for her, she learned a few things and got to have a friendly conversation. (When I gave her my husband’s email address, she asked, “Ooh, does he work for a jewelry company? You know, like with zirconium?” She was so excited to have connected to something I said. Poor dear must be really bored at work. Maybe it was a slow day. My own heart fell a bit to have to tell her that no, he works for a software company instead. Then I had to spell out his email address again to make sure she got it.)

She directed us to the nearest one of their locations to receive a replacement car and warned us not to drive more than 50 miles on the spare. "Also, make sure the tank is full when you arrive."


We managed to get to the gas station and then the rental place in about 45 miles of driving and about 15 minutes before closing time. The gentlemen working the rental car counter at Yellowstone Airport were very helpful, funny, and generous. The manager gave the girls a pack of red licorice while the assistant listed all the places he kept bear spray. Seconda gave the manager a drawing of a hawk she had done the day before. I was surprised to notice that he was visibly moved by her gesture. He placed it on the wall next to his framed photo of the bears that appeared at the airport one day, the bears who came up just yards from him as he washed one of the rental cars. My girl does have a special way of connecting with people.

We had planned to cook at home, but the tire episode changed all that, and we were the luckier for it. The owner of the vacation rental made plain his low opinion of the local restaurant scene, setting our expectations accordingly low. It was our absolute pleasure, however, to have Beartooth Barbecue turn out to be a close substitute to one of our favorite local places. Bellies full, we headed home in our new set of wheels.

As we turned back onto Rt. 287 toward Hebgen Lake, the sun setting over the mountains filled the view. Our prize for two days of near-constant clouds was this, and we never would have seen it were it not for that flat tire.