When the Rich Get Richer

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I’m livid about the college admissions scandal that is rocking the nation with its accusations of cheating by moneyed parents in order to obtain spots for their children. As an educator I am appalled but not really surprised by the idea that wealthy families are buying their way into prestigious universities. The whole affair speaks to monumental problems with the way things work in the acceptance process for schools and it addresses the pressures that our college bound students are facing, particularly when they lack influence or financial backing. As far as I am concerned this story reveals only the tip of a very dangerous iceberg and a societal problem that we have generally refused to discuss openly. There is something very wrong with the way things presently work and it is hurting everyone of us.

Right now suicides and attempts at suicide are at an all time high among high school and college age students. It’s a complex issue with so many facets that narrowing it down to just one thing is ludicrous. Nonetheless we have to consider the pressures to attend the top universities as one of the reasons that our kids are so anxious. The almighty class ranks and test scores are dominating their teen years. High schools are no longer ranked just by the number of graduates but also by the number of students taking advanced placement classes, the scores of students on the various tests, the number of students being accepted into universities and the supposed quality of the university admissions.

To get to the pinnacle of their high school careers students are carrying almost impossible study loads and being urged to compliment their academic achievements with participation in sports, extra curricular activities, and community service. Our kids are leaving their homes before dawn, arriving back home after dark and studying into the wee hours of the night so that they might receive acceptance letters from the most coveted schools. They are continually challenged  and ranked and asked to perform better and better. The idea of personal bests pushes them to the point of exhaustion and steals away time with their families. Little wonder that so many are crashing and burning. Few adults work as many hours without relaxation as so many of our high school students presently do just so they will rank high enough, score high enough  and perform well enough to one day gain admittance to one to a top university.

We’ve always known that wealthy families buy buildings, support athletic programs and serve on collegiate boards expecting payback in the form of special treatment for their children. I suppose I don’t have to mention the names of famous people who graduated from Ivy League universities without seeming to have had the intellect to do so. Money has always talked, but the new schemes are particularly egregious. How many worthy students have languished on a waiting list while a less qualified but rich son or daughter of a scion has been welcomed to a big name school with open arms?

Given the revelations of cheating what are we to tell the students who are genuinely attempting to demonstrate their worth? How do we convince them that the deck isn’t stacked against them before they even try? Furthermore, why are we as a society so convinced that the diplomas from the more highly regarded schools are worth more than others?

I’m a graduate of the University of Houston and quite proud of the education that I received there. I had the grades and the chops to attend the more elite schools but as the child of a single parent I did not have the resources or connections to be able to afford attending such places. I happily commuted from home each day and learned from some incredible professors who worked hard to inspire me. I was a Summa Cum Laude graduate who had won several academic honors. I quickly learned after landing my first job that what counted most was the quality of my work. No body ever again wanted to know where I had earned my degree, what my GPA had been, or whether or not I had earned honors. As far as my employers were concerned my performance each day was of the most importance, and I worked hard to earn their respect. That was all that really mattered.

There have always been individuals whose lives were set for success even before they went to school. The influence of their families has been their key to getting and staying in high paying jobs. The rest of us have to work our way to the top, but I wonder if starting that grind too early can have devastating effects on the overall development of our young. There is a time and a season for everything and if we join the rat race too soon we will eventually burn out. We have to learn how to find balance in our lives, so why are we pushing our students to levels of dedication that are unhealthy both physically and mentally? Do we not understand that wide scale cheating is a symptom that should tell us that something is very wrong?

I recall conversations with high school teachers about preparing students for college and beyond. What few high school educators note is that university students are not stuck in a classroom for seven to eight hours a day and then given enormous amounts of homework, research projects, and papers to write in the hours when they are at home. In college there may be three or four hours of class time each day with many more hours to complete course requirements. If the students wants to participate in extra curricular activities they can, but that is not forced on them. In other words, college presents a far easier schedule than most of today’s high schools do.

It’s time that we adults speak up for our young, and speak out against the practices of testing companies, admission policies, grading systems, continual ranking and other processes that are wreaking havoc with our teens. Learning should be our focus, not competition. The experience should be joyful and meaningful, not a source of stress. Until we repair the damage that has been done we no doubt will continue to see greedy individuals taking advantage of the gaming nature of the system. So far fifty people have been implicated in the latest scandal. Something tells me that the real number is in the thousands or perhaps the hundred thousands. We are sending our young a horrible message and we have to change that now. 

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Our Little Angels

Cooper and Luna

I have a little friend at the house for a few days. His name is Cooper and he is my grand dog. Over the years Cooper has been here for many sleepovers while his family travels. He’s no trouble at all and he brings a great deal of love when he comes. This year he had some tough times. He had surgery in the fall and for a while we really wondered if he was going to make it. Thanks to a good vet and some tender loving care from his family he has rallied back, but he’s really showing signs of being an old man now. His coat is becoming more and more grey over time and his legs don’t always work as well as they once did so he sometimes struggles just to get up from a resting position. He doesn’t do much running around theses days. Instead his pace is slow, steady and deliberate. He’s missing teeth that he once had, making him look a bit forlorn.

There was a time when Cooper was athletic enough to leap up onto our bed like a super hero. We would awake in the morning to find him snoring at our feet. Now he can’t even climb the stairs to be with Mike in the man cave the way he used to do. Now He prefers having a soft quilt on which to relax, and even then he struggles a bit to find a comfortable position. Still, he’s as lovable as can be and enjoys back scratches and tummy rubs as much as he ever did.

Cooper is little trouble. He only barks when he wants to go outside or when it’s time for a meal. It’s nice of him to remind us to take care of his needs because we sometimes get busy and don’t notice what hour it is. He dutifully lets us know what he wants and when he wants it. The rest of the time he mostly follows us around and watches us doing our chores. He is a model guest and a great companion, so we never mind having him. He’s as sweet a dog as ever there was.

Cooper doesn’t play much these days. When he was younger he was like an athletic clown, making us laugh with his antics and prowess. He often flew into our laps wherever we happened to sit and ran across the yard with ease. Since he was adventurous we had to be certain that there were no cracks along the fence line or he would find a way to wiggle outside of the barrier and wander around the neighborhood exploring. He wound up at somebody else’s house more than once. We’ve engaged in many a frantic search but we always found him and felt a sense of relief along with a great deal of amusement.

Cooper is a pug, by the way, and as cute and sweet as that breed of dog generally is. His eyes have always been so enchanting. All he has to do is stare at us and we have to give in to whatever he wants. Now they are a bit sorrowful owing to the passage of time and the aging of his body, but he is still irresistible when he uses them to beg. He knows that I am a real pushover when he patiently stares at me with his now old man puppy face.

We haven’t had a dog of our own for some time now. We are always on the go and having to consider the needs of a pet just doesn’t work with our present lifestyle. I imagine that we will eventually slow down just the way Cooper has. Maybe then we will once more enjoy the companionship of a dog. A large creature like a golden retriever or a collie might be fun but I like the idea of a lap dog like Cooper. I want a pet who can sit beside me in a chair without taking up too much room. I like the idea of a pet that I might cuddle without feeling as though I am being crushed by its weight.

It’s little wonder that dogs are used to service people with disabilities. They are so remarkably loving and conscious of our moods and our well being. They communicate with us as though they understand exactly how we are feeling. When we are happy they rejoice with us. When we are sad they loyally offer us comfort. It’s a silly idea, but also quite profound to note that the word dog is God spelled backwards. In so many ways they are indeed like little angels sent to love and care for us as long as we treat them well.

I’m happy that my grandchildren have grown up with pets. Their dogs have all been sweet and quite smart. I’ve loved them as if they were my own and grieved when they passed. I wish that our dogs would last longer than they do. We become so close to them that our hearts break when they die. It is as though a member of the family is gone, and we remember them forever.

It saddens me a bit to know that Cooper is truly an old dog and that he shows so many signs of slowing down. I want to enjoy him as much and as often as I can while I still have the chance. He has burrowed his way quite deeply into my heart. These days he does nothing extraordinary other than to be as sweet as he ever was. I take joy in simply listening to him snore as he lies at my feet. I laugh when he barks at me to let him go outside or indicates that he wants me to give him a treat or a bit more food. I could sit all day just watching him sleep. There is great comfort in having him near.

May the Road Rise Up To Meet You

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This weekend there will be grand St. Patrick Day celebrations in Boston, New York City, Chicago,  New Orleans and all across the United States. There will be many a river died green and folks will don their emerald colored clothing lest they be pinched. Lots of corned beef and cabbage will be the dish of the day along with beer and soda bread. It’s a fun occasion and everybody gets into the act even if they don’t have an Irish bone in their bodies.

It was not until a few years back that I discovered that I am a descendant of the real article. My great grandmother was Marion Rourke, a true Irish name if ever there was one. I know little more than that she existed, married my great grandfather James Mack, had a baby boy that she named William, and died only a few days after giving birth. That baby boy was my paternal grandfather, a man who like me would often think of his mother and wish that he had known her. She is a kind of mystery in that she doesn’t show up on census records or death certificates of the time. Nobody knows for certain why she died, but my grandfather would never forget her, one day naming his daughter “Marion” in her honor.

I’ve searched record after record hoping to know her better. A general discussion of her name mentions that Roarks are probably descendants of a Viking  named Ruaric who found his way to the Emerald Isle and stayed to build a life and a legacy in a territory known as Breffny, now Cavan and West Leitrim located in Northeastern Ireland. The Roark family was at one time quite powerful in Ireland and their motto was “I govern by serving.” Over time famine and poverty drove many of them to seek new possibilities in places like the United States. I suppose that I will never really know how Marion got here and where she met James Mack. Somehow though I suspect that through her DNA her spirit and maybe even her physical characteristics live on in members of our family.

It makes me sad to know that she died before ever getting to know her son. I think that she would have been quite proud of the man that he ultimately became. She might have enjoyed knowing that she had a granddaughter and a grandson. Surely my father with his intellect and impish sense of humor would have brought her the same kind of joy that I derive from my own grandchildren. I wonder if it is possible that the twinkle in my youngest grandson William’s eyes is part of his Irish heritage. Is the quick wit of my brother Patrick right in keeping with Marion’s ethnicity? Surely he has the perfect name for the great grandson of an Irish lass, as do his own sons Ryan and Shawn.

When I gave birth to my first daughter I had a long labor of over eighteen hours that was complicated by the fact that my baby weighed more than nine pounds and was determined to arrive in a breech position. My doctors eventually got her facing in the right direction, but he told me that in the days of yore I might not have made it. When the same thing happened with my second child he asked if I knew of anyone in my family who had experienced a similar situation. I never thought of my great grandmother Marion but now I wonder if her labor and been similar to mine. Without a hospital, nurses, and a highly trained doctor the delivery may have been so difficult as to render her weak and unable to rebound.

I try not to get too sad thinking about Great Grandmother Marion. Instead I prefer to celebrate the ancestry that she gave me. I like to think of how she must have loved her baby boy William if only for a very short time. I suspect that her life was always a bit difficult but she had found some joy with James and hope for the future with William. Her son was a very handsome and articulate man, a storyteller and gifted craftsman. Did some of those traits come from her?

Now I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a new feeling that I am very much entitled to this annual fest by birth right. This year I have bangers from Ireland that I will try along with some cabbage and potatoes. I may make a trip to Central Market for some Irish soda bread like my dear friend Marita Doyle used to bake. She would get a kick out of knowing that the two of us now share a link to Ireland because she was an Irish girl from Chicago through and through.

In a touch of irony my grandfather William ended up being raised by his grandmother Sarah Reynolds. I find that interesting because when I was teaching at a local Catholic school I worked with a fine woman named Therese Reynolds who spoke with a lovely  brogue and had the same kind of humor that runs from my grandfather down to my youngest grandson. Like my grandfather she was a teller of tales that were filled with blarney and fun. She once gave me a beautiful copy of the Irish Blessing that hangs in the entryway to my home. I’ve always been taken by it’s words and now I know that it is part of my heritage. So on the eve of St. Paddy’s Day I pray:

May the roads rise to meet you,

May the winds be always at your back,

May sun shine warm upon your face,

The rains fall soft upon your fields,

And until we meet again

May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

Finding Joy In the Story You Are Living

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Sometimes you have to let go of the picture of what you thought life would be like and learn to find joy in the story you are living.

I saw this quote on Facebook and realized that as trite as it sounds it is actually quite profound. Who among us has not experienced unexpected changes in the trajectory of our lives that seemed to wreck our plans and challenge our optimism? For most of us life is peppered with a series of surprises that usually come at inopportune times and often threaten our sense of security, but sometimes in dealing with them we find strength, friendship and new opportunities that we never considered.

When my father died at the age of eight my world toppled around me and my family. I felt as though our entire existence was doomed as we scaled back on plans to move to an exciting new neighborhood, replaced our luxury car with an ugly stripped down model, and had to learn how to live from one paycheck to the next. I still recall the anxiety that filled my mind and the feelings that life would always be dreary and uncertain for us, but as it turned out we ultimately found peace and perhaps a bit more compassion than we might otherwise have had. Our mother showed us how to grieve and then rebound from the tragedy that befell us. She taught us how to find happiness in the simple aspects of life like a roof over our heads on a rainy night and a warm bed when it was freezing outside. We found fun with our imaginations, books from the library, and Friday nights with our cousins at Grandma’s house.

I had been a bit spoiled before my father died, self absorbed and desirous of impressing people. After his death I found solace in my studies and my friends. I learned about kindness from generous neighbors on our blue collar street. I realized that hard work was a pathway to opportunities. All in all I am certain that I became a better more giving and understanding person than I might have been.

When I was eighteen years old I met the man who would become my husband. We had an instant connection with one another. It seemed to be fate bringing us together. We quickly fell deeply in love which caused me to worry. I had graduated at the top of my high school class. I was doing well in college, but had not yet been able to declare a major. I was filled with confusion about my future. The only thing that seemed certain to me was that I wanted to spend it with this man. He had so instantly become my muse, my confidante, my best friend.

We were caught up in the craziness of the late nineteen sixties when the world seemed almost on the verge of collapse. We felt as though we had to seize happiness in the moment or risk losing it forever, and so we decided to marry six weeks before I turned twenty. Neither of us yet had a college degree and our income was dependent on his teaching assistant salary and my teacher’s aide pittance. With a wing and a prayer we took a great leap of faith much to the chagrin of our elders.

Our earliest days of marriage were difficult mostly due to our finances barely stretching far enough to keep us housed and fed. I knew how to squeeze every dime out of a budget because of my childhood experiences, and so we survived but not without a great deal of tension and concern that perhaps we had been premature in launching our lives together. Then before we had even celebrated our first anniversary my mother had a mental breakdown, and I became the caretaker for her and my brothers. Somehow we managed to use our meager funds to feed two additional mouths and pay a number of Mama’s bills. More importantly, my husband rose to the tragic occasion and became my rock. In all honesty I don’t believe that I would have had what I needed to help my mother through her illness had he not been at my side at every frightening  turn.

Once my mother was well again the doctor told me that she was cured. He did not believe that she would ever again be as sick as she had been, but of course he was wrong. He had misdiagnosed her bipolar disorder as simple depression. Over the next forty years she would have relapse after relapse and my brothers and I would have to learn how to watch over her. Our journey together created an impenetrable bond between us. We became expert at looking for signs of trouble in her behavior and worked as a team to keep her well and safe. We are as close as siblings ever might be.

If did eventually choose a college major and earn a degree, although decidedly later than I had thought I would. I graduated with honors but due to a glut of teachers in the area I was among the many who were unable to find teaching jobs. I ended up at a Catholic school near my home earning a salary that was considerably less than those of the public schools, and teaching mathematics rather than the English classes for which I had prepared. I felt that I was somehow a failure without realizing that I had actually been blessed with the most perfect job that a first year teacher might ever experience. My principal was supportive, my students were eager and well behaved, and I found that I truly enjoyed teaching math. I had six different preparations each day, sponsored a school newspaper, and headed a committee tasked to purchase computers for the students. It was a busy schedule that proved to be gloriously enjoyable in an environment that allowed me to really stretch my wings. It also assured me that I had indeed chosen the right profession.

I could go on and on and on about seemingly disappointing moments that turned out to bring me remarkable adventures that I had never before imagined. I learned over time to go with the flow of life applying my skills and my strengths to pull myself through even the most daunting challenges. Each and every experience forced me to be more than I ever thought I might be, and while they were often painful in the moment they enriched me in the long run. Ultimately I realized the fruitlessness of creating a picture of my life limited by my own world view. In the end there was so much more joy to be found in taking on the challenges and evolving into more than I had ever expected. There has been great joy in the story that I have lived.

The Brilliance of Forgetting

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Well that’s a relief! I just found out that forgetfulness is a sign of exceptional intelligence. If that’s the case I must be a genius because I’m one of those folks who walks from one room to another with great purpose and then ends up wondering why I’m standing in a closet in a state of confusion. I’ve had to incorporate all sorts of apps into my routine just to keep track of appointments and passwords and even to handle a record of tasks that I need to complete. If the electricity ever went our for several days I’d be up a creek wandering about dazed and disorganized.

I’ve never been good at recalling things like my license plate number. That’s why I so loved my GAMMY 7 car with its never to forget personalized identification. When I eventually gifted the car to my grandsons I was happy to help them out, but I hated losing the one thing identified by a series of letters and numbers that I never ever forgot. It does’t even seem like the same car with its now generic set of symbols. I’d probably lose it in a parking lot without its familiar name smiling at me on that little metal plate. I’d be wandering about hoping to hear a little honking sound as I pressed the remote on my key fob.

I have to look up the numbers on my driver’s license every single time that someone asks me for that bit of identification, but I can spout my social security info without even thinking because I’ve had to be able to retrieve that combination of numbers since I was a student. It’s been an important piece of usefulness for jobs and all sorts of situations, so it’s become second nature to me like my name or my phone number. Speaking of which, having both a land line and cell can become a bit confusing, but so far I’ve managed to differentiate between the two. I keep wondering if it’s time to ditch the land land though because it has become rare for me or anyone that I know to use it.

I’ve always had a bit of dyslexia so I frequently transpose numbers, a tendency which can be lethal when teaching mathematics. I learned long ago to always check my solutions to problems. I became rather adept in determining if an answer appeared to make sense or not. Whenever I made a mistake while instructing my students I used it as a way to encourage them by admitting that we all have those moments of imperfection. I also took that time to demonstrate how to assess an answer in terms of whether or not it made sense. Nonetheless to this very day I sometimes find myself freezing in terror when faced with the seven and nine multiplication facts. I have to take a deep breath and hope that my brain is not so rattled that I make a fool of myself in front of my students.

When it comes to birthdays I’m really bad. Facebook has done me one of the grandest favors of my lifetime by reminding me of who is celebrating on any given day. Unfortunately their algorithm does not always choose to keep me in touch with all of the people that I definitely want to remember, so I suspect that I am missing a few of my favorite people from time to time. I ask anyone who has been forgotten to just understand that I’m not a birthday wizard. I know mine, those of my children and my grandchildren. After that I have to check a calendar.

A friend was asking me about someone’s address recently. I had no idea how to respond. I’m one of those kooky women who is able to drive to the homes of my friends and family members strictly by dent of landmarks and house styles and colors. If you ask me for numbers and sometimes even street names I’m lost, but I know exactly what places of business are on the corners where I must turn and I have an uncanny sense of direction. I know immediately whether or not I am traveling the right way even in a deep fog. In spite of that I still think of Siri as my new best friend as she navigates me all over the country. It’s as though I have a dear companion in the seat next to me making certain that I will never get lost.

I know people who describe life events with exact dates. I can’t remember whether an occasion transpired this year or a decade ago. I hate the medical forms that ask me when I broke my foot. I really have no idea how old I was other than the fact that I was young enough to participate in a miles long fund raiser. I didn’t wear proper shoes for the occasion and I ended up with a stress fracture because I did not yet I know that I had osteoporosis and was more likely than most to get broken bones. i suppose that I am one of those folks whose mind keeps track of general details rather than specifics.

I am able to recall events and conversations from my childhood quite vividly. For that matter any situation involving an encounter with another person is planted clearly in my mind. I suppose that such incidents are of particular importance to me. It is as though I can actually relive them, hear the voices, see the details and colors, have the same feelings. I find myself back in those times as though they were happening right now. It’s so strange how the mind works. I wonder how we unconsciously decide what is important enough to recall with clarity?

When I was a teenager working as a receptionist for our family doctor during the summer I learned about the power of knowing how and where to find information. The kindly physician showed me his vast collection of medical books and demonstrated how he would listen to a patient’s description of symptoms and then use the volumes to match them to a disease and its requisite treatments. That’s when I realized that we never really know everything, at least those of us who are not brilliant savants. It was quite freeing to understand that much of education teaches us how to find the resources that lead us to the answers that we need.

As I grow older I must indeed be getting more and brilliant if the research is to be believed because I am more and more forgetful without the electronic reminders that I have set in place. I have to say that our brave new world of information right at our fingertips has come along at just the right time of life for me. I can at least face the world without looking ridiculously confused about what to do next. Still, I miss those lovely calendars that I used to religiously carry in my purse or briefcase. Being the tactile learner that I am made them all the more meaningful. I found myself recalling the color coding that I used and the little pictures that I drew to emphasize the importance of certain things. I suppose that like Mitt Romney I still prefer relying on binders to sort and organize my life. Those images on little screens sometimes rattle my dyslexia in a way that the paper images never did, but at least they don’t get lost and they take the time to remind me of what I need to do with bells and whistles and little bubbles. I’m growing more and more fond of them by the day, at least until those moments when I can’t find my phone or my laptop.