Friday, May 25, 2018

Toss Your Hats and Your Heroes

Next week is high school graduation here in Utah, and also for my niece in California.

This has prompted me to consider what advice I could offer the Class of 2018, should they ask, and I decided if the opportunity presented itself I would begin by telling them about Joe Paterno.

Joe Paterno, as they may not be aware, was head coach of the Penn State football team for 46 years, and is the second winningest coach in college football history.  In 2001, a 7-foot bronze statue of him was unveiled at Beaver Stadium in recognition of his contributions to the university and because, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Ten years later, in light of his involvement in the Penn State child sex abuse scandal, the statue was removed, and replaced by trees. The lesson? Don't erect a 7-foot bronze statue in someone's honor while they are alive, and still have a chance to prove you wrong.

I learned my own Joe Paterno lesson in 1993. At the time, I was finishing 8th grade and asked to give the commencement address at the Copperwood Elementary School graduation. My speech, like Joe's statue, seemed like a good idea at the time.

Here is the introduction to it, which I excerpted from what was then my favorite book by Dan Clark. Keep reading until the end. The end is the best part.

"In 1957, a ten-year old boy in California set a goal. At the time, Jim Brown was the greatest running back ever to play pro football, and this tall, skinny boy wanted his autograph. In order to accomplish his goal, the young boy had to overcome some obstacles.

He grew up in the ghetto, he never got enough to eat. Malnutrition took its toll, and a disease called rickets forced him to wear steel splints to support his skinny, bowed-out legs. He had no money to buy a ticket to get into the game so he waited patiently near the locker room until the game ended and Jim Brown left the field. He politely asked Brown for his autograph. As Brown signed, the boy explained, "Mr. Brown, I have your picture on my wall. I know you hold all the records. You're my idol."

Brown smiled and began to leave, but the young boy wasn't finished. He proclaimed, "Mr. Brown, one day I'm going to break every record you hold!" Brown was impressed and asked, "What is your name, son?"

The boy replied, "Orenthal James. My friends call me O.J."

O.J. Simpson went on to break all but three of the rushing records held by Jim brown before injuries shortened his football career. Goal setting is the strongest force for human motivation. Set a goal and make it come true."


Ah, my hero.

Susan B. Anthony? No. Martin Luther King? Nope. Sandra Day O'Connor? Keep guessing!

Oh I don't know...the first woman in space??

No sir! MY hero was OJ Simpson.

A year after I gave that speech, on a blazing hot day in June, I returned home from summer camp to find my family glued to a white Bronco chase on TV. In the backseat of that Bronco, I was told, was my hero, having been accused of murdering his ex-wife and her companion. A year and a half after that, sitting in the back row of a portable classroom at Ironwood High School, I watched as his verdict was read, and heard an outcry of reaction from the diverse group of students around me.

Thirteen years to the day after that, while my two young children played in the next room, I read on The Drudge Report that he had been found guilty of twelve counts of robbery and kidnapping, and sentenced to a minimum of 9 years in prison.

He was my hero. Until he wasn't.

In light of this turn of events,  I would like to offer the Copperwood Elementary School Class of 1993 the following addendum to my commencement address, which I hope can also give the Class of 2018 something to think about.


There was a time when "famous" and "hero" were synonymous, because people became famous for doing heroic things. Abraham Lincoln was famous, because he was a hero. So were Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, Amelia Earhart and Neil Armstrong.  All heroes. All famous.

Today, it's different. Today, all you need to be famous are a cell phone and a social media account. As a result, we are living in a culture saturated and obsessed with celebrity. A 2012 UCLA study found that becoming famous was the number one aspiration among children 10-12 years old, surpassing their desire for financial success, achievement, and a sense of community.

That group of children, who were 10-12 in 2012, now comprise the Class of 2018.

So Class of 2018, what is your number one aspiration today? Are you more concerned with your future success, or your Snapchat streaks? Do you dream of being a YouTube star, or a youth leader? Followed on Twitter, or as a teacher? Do you spend more of your time seeking inspiration, or scrolling Instagram? Counting likes, or living life?

Being famous is easy. Being a hero is hard, and we could all do well to identify the ones that most people have never heard of. Your mother, who taught you the value of sacrifice. Your father, who taught you the value of hard work. The coach who pushed you to be better, youth leader who inspired you to be kinder, or teacher who motivated you to dream bigger.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "The hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men."

In 1862, he died.

A century later, a 7-foot bronze statue of him was unveiled at his former home on Waldon Pond.

It still remains today.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Habitually Truant

My oldest child has a criminal record that begins when she was in kindergarten.

That's the first time we received a letter from her school, informing us that she was habitually truant and in violation of California Education Code 48260.

According to the principal, who signed the notice, her attendance was so deficient that if we "continued to fail to meet (our) obligation, (we) would be guilty of an infraction of the law, and subject to prosecution pursuant to Education Code 48290-48296."

Then, she levied the following shocking allegation.

Four days. WITH FAMILY.

So egregious we posed her for a mug shot.

That kindergartner is now graduating from 8th grade. She's too old to pose in a wife beater with a placard (5 is such a precious age!), but I'm pleased to say we have come a long way. In kindergarten, she had 5 unexcused absences. This year, she had 29.

In the past nine years it seems, we have progressed through the seven stages of truancy. They range from shock, shame and guilt, through questioning and resistance, to planning a seven-day trip to Disneyland in the middle of October.

When we lived in Virginia, where she attended 1st through 6th grade, absences were reported to a voicemail that required parents to specify their child's ailment from a list of options that included fever, vomiting, rash, diarrhea and sore throat. My kids always begged me to make this call on speaker. Evidently there's something about hearing the school secretary say "diarrhea" that just never gets old.

Once, when I called and honestly reported that she had a "stomach bug," I received a call back a few hours later, requesting more specific details. This struck me as so intrusive that I reacted defensively by giving the information they requested, and then some. I think it was the point when I offered to provide a stool sample that they marked her excused and ended the call.

Last year, the Washington Post published a list of acceptable reasons for a child to miss school. It included strep throat, influenza, pink eye and hand foot and mouth disease (which, by the way, included the caveat, "especially if they are unable to control their drooling." Gee, you think?).

Our family also has a list of acceptable reasons to miss school. Over the years it has included visiting Gettysburg, the Grand Canyon and Statue of Liberty, solar eclipses, weddings, mission farewells, visits to grandparents, the beach, Disneyland, and their mother's PMS.

Before proceeding, I must clarify that this post is a confessional, and not an advocate. I completely understand the reasoning behind truancy codes, and importance of consistent attendance. Absences create an undue burden on teachers, who are my HEROES, and require them to invest time and attention that diverts from other important aspects of their job. Also, it is my understanding that most schools are funded using a formula that incorporates average daily attendance, so that absences mean fewer dollars allocated.

But. Watching my daughter turn from a kindergartner to a freshman faster than I can say "habitually truant" has also taught me that childhood is crushingly fleeting. The joy and heartbreak of watching her and her siblings grow and gain independence has prompted me to adopt a "What will we remember more?" approach to raising them. Whenever the option of a second-grade history lesson or day at a museum presented itself, the museum always won. And when we've had opportunities to take vacations that create memories beyond recess and worksheets, we've taken them, even when they haven't fit within the confines of winter break or early release days.

Also, when they are in school (which is the majority of the time!), I make a concerted effort to compensate. I love their teachers exceedingly, and shower them with gratitude. I'm the first to volunteer to assist, and provide classroom supplies, cupcakes for parties, and children who are prepared, respectful, smell good, brush their teeth, and never tattle.

Which is why, at the beginning of this school year, when mothers I follow on social media were posting their inspiring annual family mottos I decided that we need one too, and selected after much consideration, "Erbs have Unexcused Absences."

It may have been deprecating at first, but as the year has progressed it has evolved from evoking feelings of sarcasm to sentimentality. Jolie is on the precipice of high school, and with the pressure of college acceptance on the horizon I know that soon we'll no longer have the luxury of of compensating for absences with a simple stack of makeup work. In four years she will be out of the house, and when she is I know I won't regret a single call to the absence voicemail to excuse her to spend extra time with us.  She missed 29 days this year but is ending it with a 4.0, which makes me proud, and an accumulation of family memories, which makes me prouder.

Earlier this year, after back to back trips to California, Arizona and Idaho, her younger brother came home from school one day to tell us that a boy in his class had never missed a day of school. "Not one in his whole life Mom," he said, "Not even since kindergarten. That's called perfect attendance."

And then, just as I was beginning to feel guilty and a little defensive he said, "Isn't that sad?"

Friday, May 11, 2018

38 Things I Learned From My Mother

1. Listen more than you speak

2. Write thank you notes

3. Wait a few seconds after the light turns green before proceeding into an intersection

4. Get ready every day, even if you have no plans to leave the house.

5. There are few problems that can't be solved by a day at the mall with your sisters

6. The best food is Mexican

7. How to make the perfect chimichanga

8. Be your child's parent first. If you do that right, you can be their friend later.

9. Never leave for vacation with a messy house

10. Always have one book on your nightstand that you're currently reading, and one on hold at the library that you plan to read next

11. Control your day, or it will control you. Before you do anything else, make your bed and a to-do list

12. Iron your clothes. Rowenta irons and velvet hangers are best

13. There's a Seinfeld quote for every situation

14. The most important occasion of the day is family dinner. Make something delicious, set a beautiful table, and don't let anything take priority over it

15. Stay informed on world affairs and current events

16. Wrap presents beautifully, and when giving someone food you can do better than paper plates and saran wrap

17. See's Candy has medicinal benefits

18. Lock your doors

19. Dress according to your season. Warm undertones look best in warm colors, and cool in cool

20. The person in front of you takes precedence over the person calling on the phone

21. When your house is clean your mind is clean

22. Family before friends

23. Quality friends above quantity

24. Things are funniest when they're not supposed to be funny

25. Homemaking is a science guided by the five senses. What does your house look like? How does it smell? What do you hear? What do you taste? How does it make you feel?

26. Vacations aren't about where you go, but who you're with

27. Beaches are nice. Mountains are better.

28. There's a season for everything in life. The season for raising young children is fleeting and critical, so go all in. There will be plenty of time later for other pursuits

29.  It's better to be overdressed than underdressed

30. Lipstick isn't for everyone. Just people with lips.

31. Isn't your dad wonderful? Aren't we lucky?

32. Less is more. If you don't love it or use it, donate it

33. Children gain confidence from predictable routines. They should always know what to expect, what comes next, and what are the consequences of their choices.

34. Santa Clause is generous

35. Work before you play

36.  When your husband or children walk through the door, stop what you're doing, welcome them, and let them know you're so happy they're home

37. You are only as happy as your saddest child

38. Call your mother every day

Mom, thank you ♥ (#2 ✔️)

Friday, May 4, 2018

Ms. Pettibone

My 11-year old daughter Leah has had quite a year. There has been school of course, and her weekly tumbling class, but she also learned to fish. And came within three feet of a brown bear. After that she got her first job, at a bakery, but took time off for a trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and then CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. In between those, she managed to squeeze in a Queen P concert, trip to South Korea, where she competed in the Winter Olympics as a figure skater, and shuttle to Mars.

Really though.  I can prove it.

To do so, I have to go take you back to August and set the stage. Literally. A black, wooden, custom-built stage with glittering tassels and bright lights that sat in anticipation, ready to illuminate the stars as they arrived.  Not actors in a play, but ten and eleven-year old children who had been cast in the coveted role of students in Ms. Pettibone's fourth grade class.

Leah is one of those students. The stage is just one of countless ideas dreamed up by Ms. Pettibone to allow children like her a chance to shine. When another teacher asked why there was a stage in her classroom, she replied, "Why isn't there a stage in your classroom?" It's part of her daily, tireless effort to ensure that every student feels important, appreciated and capable.

As the mother of four children who have attended five schools in three states, I have observed over 30 classrooms, and never seen anything like the phenomenal environment created by Ms. Pettibone.

Ms. Pettibone or, I should say, whoever happens to greet the students on a given morning.

Once, for example, it was Her Honor Pettibone, sitting at her judicial bench ready to to prepare the class for a writing test by hearing persuasive evidence they gleaned and presented from a text

On another day, it was Queen P, a rapper whose forte is multiplication 

and PV, a bear who roams the forest teaching place value 

Last week, students arrived to discover that she had mysteriously been replaced by Nikki Watts, a special agent from Washington DC. The classroom had been transformed into the CIA, and as they entered it they were digitally "fingerprinted," issued security badges, and given the task of saving hacked files by practicing their language arts. With highlighters. Beneath a black light. After navigating through a maze of glowing lasers. 

In February, they stepped through the doors of Room 304 and into South Korea, where they were named athletes in the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. The wall was covered with pictures of every student as a gold medal athlete. Each subject was tackled as an event, and thunderous applause could be heard as they beat personal records.

On another occasion the room was "Text Structure Raceway." Students sped around the room with toy cars, reading and studying informational text in order to cross the finish line and earn a trophy. 

Or the time they left earth, landed on Mars, and were challenged to find their way home. 

I could go on, and on. Leah and her class have also learned while baking pies, completing scavenger hunts, and fishing from inflatable pools.

Ms. Pettibone is remarkable.

And, remarkably, her creativity isn't the quality that impresses me most.  She once said that she understands the struggle with self-esteem that can affect her students, and has therefore made it her mission to ensure that each of them feels important.  She writes  heartfelt personal letters enumerating their strengths, attends their extracurricular performances on weekends, and makes sure they have a friend to play with at recess.  At parent teacher conferences, she goes beyond test scores and quantitative measurements, and talks to parents about their child's kindness and confidence, the joy they bring to her life, and their unique talents and potential.

Once, Ms. Pettibone mentioned during a lesson that she needed a good night's rest to be ready for her job, and a baffled student replied, "You have a job!?"  It was the perfect indication of the way she is perceived. Not as someone who simply shows up for work every day, but as a beloved part of each child's life - Teacher, mentor, advocate, cheerleader and friend.

When you have a child that struggles academically and socially the way Leah does, the thought of sending them to school can be agonizing. The gift of Ms. Pettibone is that her classroom is the place where Leah feels most confident. She has made more progress this year than any prior, and I can say that without considering a single grade or test score.

They say that teaching is a thankless job. Thanking this teacher enough is an impossible one.

Good Vibes at Valley Forge

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