Do What is Best for Children

I know, let’s turn Indiana schoolchildren into prank monkeys!

While it’s true that I’ve been out of teaching for four years, and with my youngest in the second semester of his junior year in high school, I really don’t have a dog in the fight, I still can’t wrap my head around what legislators—and not just those in Indiana—are doing to children.

Before you start with the mistaken notion that I’m one of those liberal, union-loving, child-coddling, tree-hugging, GOP-hating left-wing nut jobs, let me put that to rest.  I’m not.  I’m a conservative Republican with Libertarian leanings who believes the federal government should not feed schoolchildren (their parents should) nor subsidize preschool (cut taxes so that one parent can stay at home).  So there.  Those two radical ideas might be off-putting to some of my friends, but we’re about two generations into a Great Society that has another mistaken notion that the federal government exists to take care of us.  We need to get back to taking care of ourselves and get the federal government out of education.

That said, I truly do believe in public education, even though my own children were mostly educated in Catholic schools.  My parents were public school teachers, and between my husband and me, we have around 45 years’ experience in public schools both in the inner city and in suburbia.  Public schools should serve as the great equalizer—a level playing field—even though school funding is a complex and counterintuitive formula here in Indiana.

The takeaway?  Provide a level educational playing field, yes, but hold each family accountable for how that education makes their children productive and responsible American citizens.

But back to what legislators are doing to children, because if what happens within the walls of the school are not things that are best for children, then they ought not to be happening, right?  Marathon standardized testing, mandated by state and federal regulations that are tied to funding, staffing, and a school’s A-F ranking is something that happens to children, not to adults.  Explain to me how making a third grader endure nine hours and 25 minutes of standardized testing is good for him.  Because I’d really like to know.

In my last year of teaching, I was told that I was to “get” each of my 27 fifth graders to pass ISTEP.  I laughed.  Seven of my 27 young scholars spoke limited English.  They might soar through the math part, but they wouldn’t even be able to read the language arts portion.  In a hilarious twist of irony, these students would have the instructions read to them in Spanish, their native language, but would be forced to take the test in English.

I wonder how many state legislators could take the test in Spanish.  More hilarity.

Moreover, several of my students with IEPs were not even close to reading on grade level, but they, too, were expected to pass the test.  C’mon, their IEPs mandated that they would have extra time to complete the exam—all they needed was a little extra time, right?

Hell, they could still be taking that fifth grade ISTEP today as freshmen in high school and still not pass it.  Time was not what they needed, fellas.

My point is this:  How is standardized testing good for children?  Does it make for better schools?  No.  Does it make teachers better?  Hell no.  Do teachers have any control over who walks through their classroom doors at the beginning of the school year?  No!  Does standardized testing eat up instructional time?  Yes!  Does it take away from authentic learning opportunities?  Hell yes!  Do I need to go on?  No!  Because common sense tells us that high stakes testing doesn’t do anything but create nail-biting, anxiety-ridden teachers and students, and turns school administrators into monocle-wearing, whip-bearing SS officers threatening to unleash their torrent of fury against any teacher who dares question the hours and hours of mandated test prep being forced upon them.  After all, their necks are also on the line.  Administrators who do not produce passing test scores shall be eliminated!

There are parts of the ISTEP exam that make sense, and there are parts of it that are thoughtful and well-written.  Well, at least there were in 2009, the last year I administered the test.  I’m not saying, “Abandon standardized testing forever!”  What I’m saying is to be reasonable.  Use the test as one piece of the assessment pie.  Much of what happens to children while they’re in school cannot be and should not be reflected in the results of a standardized test, no matter how well written it is.  Children’s writing, their ability to communicate, solve problems, seek out answers to questions, their technological prowess, their curiosity, and their affective learning cannot be adequately measured by a standardized test.  Which is more important?

To legislators, politics are more important, and schoolchildren serve the state as their pint-sized pawns.  To them, a school’s poor test results means that those children’s teachers are bad, bad teachers and should be fired, their schools nothing but dens of iniquity full of leftist commie teachers who care more about their rights than the children they refuse to educate.  Fire them!  Fire them all—no, better yet, parade them throughout the streets of the capital city and throw rotten tomatoes at them.  Make them a spectacle, an example of all that is wrong with public education.  Heads on a pike!  Burn them at the stake!

And then we can turn all the public schools into charter schools, because that’ll solve everything.

And all the time, those teachers were just trying to do what was best for children.

Blowing Out My Candles

Tomorrow marks another year I’ve blessed this planet with my presence—what year, you ask?  Silly you, I’m no good with numbers.  Let’s just say I’m somewhere north of 39.

Satisfied?

So today, I’m taking this opportunity to write down my birthday wishes in no particular order.  Know that, since all but one of these are wishes and not hard and fast goals with a clear purpose and a timeline, I reserve the right to embellish and, well, dream a little.

So here they are, the five things I’d like to do before my next birthday:

  1. Build a time machine. Once I’ve programmed the time machine to transport me back to the mid-1960s, I’ll travel to New York City’s Madison Avenue where I, dressed and coiffed in my best Pucci-designed mini-dress, white go-go boots, and bouffant hairdo—accentuated by aquamarine eye shadow and frosted white lipstick, of course–will walk in front of the building that houses Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and wait for Mad Men’s Don Draper to emerge from its monolithic edifice for no other purpose than to light my cigarette.  I don’t smoke, I am not planning on taking up smoking, but before I die, I want to hold upright between my pink lacquer-nailed fingers an unlit cigarette and watch Don Draper whip out that old school Zippo and light me up.  That’s all.  After a long and thoughtful inhale, I will look up smolderingly through thickly false eyelashes and thank him in my best sultry 60s voice, and without taking my eyes off the candy, be on my way.  Once I’ve turned a corner and know that he is no longer looking back at me, I’ll carelessly toss the cigarette onto the sidewalk and grind it out with the toe of my boot.  It is the mid-1960s after all.
  2. While I’ve got the use of a perfectly good time machine, I want to go back even further to 1924’s Downton Abbey and shake some sense into that Droopy Dog of Downton Edith Crawley. Poor Edith (Do we ever utter Edith’s name without prefacing it with the modifier ‘poor’?) bears a bastard child and has to watch it being raised by the farmer in the dell and his shrill-voiced wife while sister Lady Mary (who really is no lady, let’s be honest) has not only ****** a Turkish diplomat to death (To the death!), but has just recently taken poor Lord Gillingham out for a test drive and found him to be somewhat unsatisfactory. That Lady Mary had enough foresight to protect herself from the fate of her sister (what her Granny calls “an unfortunate epilogue”) doesn’t endear her to me at all.  She practically forced her lady’s maid Anna to go into CVS, embarrassed and shamefaced, and buy the rubbers she used on The Incredible Mr. Limpet (you see now why Julian Fellowes didn’t allow us to be privy to that scene), which further proves that she has no intention of marrying the poor bastard.  Mary wasn’t even woman enough to take a chance on making another baby.  Edith, hold your head up high, girlfriend.  While your less than virtuous sister looks down her nose at you—even without knowing your shame—she herself is busy breaking every rule of Edwardian society.  Be a woman and go get your baby back.
  3. Sit down with Lena Dunham (writer-producer of HBO’s Girls and author of an awful memoir) and tell her the things her mother should have told her years ago, like, “Lena, you’re somewhat on the chub-chub side.  No one wants to see your naked body.”  Or, “Lena, no one cares about your twentysomething angst.  You really don’t know what angst is,” in addition to, “Just because you were drunk and high and he didn’t call you afterwards doesn’t mean that it was rape.”  And most importantly, “Lena, some things are better left unsaid.”  You see, whereas I think Lena Dunham is somewhat intelligent and may have talent as a writer, apparently no one’s loved her enough to tell her that most of the country doesn’t want to see or hear about her weirdness, her “unwanted sexual encounter” at the hands of a made-up boogeyman, her courageous “alternative-ness”, or her dabbling in pedophilia.  Give it a rest.  You don’t seem to realize that the east coast salon society is but a thimble-full sampling of the rest of the country.  This goes for all you other creatives out there who think it’s cool, it’s hip, and it’s a thing to wallow in multiple sex partners and be proud of it, live off your parents, experiment with bisexuality, cry rape when a random hookup doesn’t go your way, and chronicle it all because people will think you’re so “brave”.  It’s not a thing.  It really isn’t.  It’s just disgusting.
  4. Become a software engineer.  I won’t go into too many details, but just understand that if I became a software engineer, my day job would be a whole lot easier.
  5. Now this is a real goal, not a dream or a wish, and the one thing that I want most to actually happen:  Have someone out there in the world of publishing read The Gym Show and see it for what it is—a compellingly good and solidly written story that should be published by a mainstream publisher.  A story that could potentially be made into a movie that people will actually want to see.  Maybe an indie film?  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  How do you get the powers that be to read your work—do you have to be a Lena Dunham? Because if that’s the criteria, forget it.  Write a better episode of Downton Abbey than Julian Fellowes?  At this point, it wouldn’t be that hard, let me tell you.  Don Draper is a marketing and advertising genius, maybe after he lights that cigarette for me I can pitch him my novel. Bottom line, it’s going to happen, and I intend to make it happen before my next birthday.

So wish me luck.  And a happy birthday!

Quest for Rhinestones, Part II

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As promised, here is my follow-up piece to the first “Quest for Rhinestones” I published last month where I chronicled the various Misses Crawford County that my mother Susan Abercrombie was privileged to pimp mentor and later chaperone through their various public appearances and during their collective shots at the Miss Pennsylvania Pageant.  I must first, however, correct some inconsistencies that appeared in my earlier post.

Kathy Stevenson, from lil’ ol’ Harmonsburg, PA, was the first Miss CC from our area (and right down the road from chez Abercrombie); however, neither my sister nor I remember if my mother had any responsibility for her crown.  Regardless, she did the area proud.  Additionally, Sandy Steiger was a runner up at Miss Pennsylvania and I know this for a fact because she told me so, and not in a “Did-you-forget-that-I-too-was-also-almost-Miss-Pennsylvania?” way, but more like a “Good-grief-I-was-so-relieved-not-to-win” way.  Apparently the quest for rhinestones carries with it some measure of burdensome responsibilities, because I recall a conversation with my friend Jane who was a First Runner-Up at the Miss Indiana Pageant in 1980-something.  I had asked her what was going through her mind as she stood on that stage after the judges had carved away the Indiana contingent to just two, and one of them was about to become Miss Indiana.  She told me she kept thinking, “Please don’t pick me, please don’t pick me” and was hugely relieved to not be the one going to Atlantic City that September.

Her talent?  Jane is a musician.  Not a gymnast.  Hm.

For me, though, growing up inundated with the whole Miss Crawford County Culture was intoxicating.  During our youth, my sister Becky and I were more than just fascinated with the pageant; we, in fact, lived it every Sunday afternoon in our bedroom with our Barbie dolls and one or two of my brother Jamie’s GI Joes that we had lifted from his closet.  First, we had to set the stage for the pageant.  This involved making a mock-up of the real Miss Crawford County stage, which was, in reality, picnic tables lined up in a ‘T’ festooned with linen skirts to hide the fact that they were picnic tables.  This runway was situated adjacent to a flatbed trailer that was also decorated thusly to hide the fact that it, in all likelihood, had served as a conveyance for some manner of farm implement in its off-season life.  The picnic tables and flatbed trailer were placed in the middle of a dirt racetrack that would, in the days after the pageant, host a stock car race and various harness races.

Once Becky and I had constructed our pageant stage, it was time to dress our Barbies in their evening gowns for the Evening Gown Tableau.  This was reminiscent of the first “Tableau” of the actual pageant where each contestant, in her evening gown and white gloves, would be escorted out of the Cadillac convertible that had ferried each prospective queen to the Crawford County Fairgrounds.  Thus the need for the GI Joes.  I only had one Ken doll, and he was too refined to do anything but serve as Master of Ceremonies. The camo-fatigued GI Joes did the heavy lifting.  Among our toys, we didn’t have anything that resembled Cadillac convertibles, so there was much imagination to be rendered during that portion of the bedroom Barbie pageant, though during one make-believe pageant I think I had each girl arriving on horseback, courtesy of our collection of Johnny West horses.

During the actual pageant, which began with the contestants alighting from their vehicles, the Evening Gown Tableau introduced the the waiting crowd to each contestant, and it was at this point that the more savvy and serious-minded audience members could begin their own process of elimination, whittling the contestant number from 20-25 down to the top ten.  Those top ten girls would get to perform their talent.  For Becky and me, this was a waste of time because we already knew who the top ten were going to be because, you see, the Sunday paper the previous week had included an enormous spread featuring all of the contestants, their bios, their talent, and a senior-picture quality portrait of each young lady who was vying for the title.  Becky and I would painstakingly pour over each girl’s CV and make our initial list.  My dad also took this opportunity to weigh in with his pronouncements of who the losers would be by pointing to a picture of an unfortunately un-photogenic or just genetically sorry-looking young girl and call her a “poor soul”.  He also had a knack for picking runners-up and winners by virtue of their last names, which was a puzzlement to me at the time.

But it wasn’t until Mum took us with her to the two pageant rehearsals during “Pageant Week” that we would know exactly who was going to be on that top ten list.

The pageant rehearsals took place at the fairgrounds (which is how I know what the stage and runway really looked like) before everything was decorated for the big night.  Miss Arita Lee Blair, as director of the pageant, was in charge, and with her cat-eye spectacles and skunk-striped hair, she made more than one girl cry during the rehearsal process, so much so, that I’m surprised any of them ever made it to Monday night without peeing in her pants.  Becky and I would watch in rapt fascination as Arita Lee, her wrecking-ball-like demeanor frightening the ugly out of everyone in her midst, would halt the proceedings–usually at the point where the girls would traipse awkwardly down the runway for the fourth or fifth time–and screech into her bullhorn using her best whisky-tenor voice “Do it O-ver!”

Note:  For those of you who are having trouble visualizing what Arita Lee looked like, rent the movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.  She’s Baby Jane.

Arita Lee even managed to scare the tinkle out of Becky and me.  Late one afternoon during rehearsals and tired of sitting, we stood watching from the first rail of the grandstands whereby Arita Lee loudly and emphatically shrieked into her bullhorn in what I can only imagine was a fit of unbridled frustration at the audacity our failure to promenade properly, “Will the Abercrombie girls please sit down!”

Back in the safety of our bedroom, we acted out the contestants’ talents, all of which were, of course, some type of gymnastic floor exercise, in what was known as the Talent Tableau portion of the pageant. This was followed by the Swimsuit Tableau.  Owing to a lack of proper pageant wear, each Barbie contestant modeled either in her talent togs or bare-naked during the Swimsuit Tableau.  Everyone was a winner here because doesn’t Barbie look good even when she’s naked?

In the actual Swimsuit Tableau, each Miss Crawford County contestant was outfitted with a modest, matronly one-piece solid-color Jantzen swimsuit (most likely purchased in downtown Meadville at Mayfair or The Crawford Store) featuring an armor-like front panel that erased any suggestion of the 1960s-1970s version of a camel toe.  In real life, at that time, girls were wearing bikinis to the beach, but at the Miss Crawford County Pageant, the goodies beneath the swimwear were just as cleverly disguised as Barbie’s were–with or without clothes.

Of course, the highlight of the real-life Miss Crawford County Pageant (as well as in our bedroom Barbie version) was the crowning of the queen.  But first, the previous year’s winner had to take her final walk down the runway as Miss Crawford County to the dulcet tones of K.K. Roberts singing, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”.  K.K. Roberts, whose most indelible feature was his prolifically long and wiry eyebrows, served as the Master of Ceremonies at the Miss Crawford County Pageant, and in my six, seven, and eight year-old mind, I imagined that he was Arita Lee’s boyfriend because he was the only one she was nice to during the whole rehearsal ordeal.  In reality, she was probably nice to him because he was the only one in Meadville who knew the words to any Broadway tunes.

Once the real pageant was over, my dad, usually in a state of inebriation equal to his bagful of sarcastic remarks about what he considered to be the most wasteful hours of his life, would take us home, reveling only in the glory of his innate ability to have, once again, picked the winner and the runners-up.  Too bad he wasn’t a betting man–over the years, he could have changed the fortunes of our family with the over-under.

As for the bedroom pageant, all things came to a screeching halt once Jamie discovered the missing-in-action GI Joes or Becky and I collapsed in a fit of giggles over the pitiful pageant performance of the one Barbie whose hair Becky had cut off the previous summer (in retrospect, I should have dyed a skunk stripe in that doll’s hair and made her pageant director).  Then my dad would come in our room threaten us with an ass-beating for having a giggle-fest when he had to get up and work in the morning.

For us, time seemed to stand still until the next August when we could once again bask in all things Miss Crawford County and dream of the days when we would begin our own quest for the rhinestones.

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