Thursday, October 25, 2012

What I've Been Doing

[My apologies in advance. My neighbor asked if I had any new blog posts up, since she hadn't seen one in a while. She hadn't missed one; the thoughts in this post have just been percolating for some time. I'm sharing even though I'm not sure this will be of interest or concern to everyone. I'll try to have something a little lighter-hearted next time.]

I've been a volunteer at my kids' elementary school for a long time. Though I made several mostly joking references last year to chucking my notebook at the first person who even hinted that they would take over as booster club president and then running far, far away, the truth is that I always knew that I would still be devoting a chunk of my time to helping at the school this year, in some capacity or another.

I started out innocently enough, back when Son #1 was in first grade, and I attended the first PTA meeting of the year, hugely pregnant with Son #3 and with one complaint on my mind. The previous year our school had started their first-ever appeal for direct donations, and the letter had stated that if you donated more than a certain amount, you would get a receipt for tax purposes. We had donated, and had never gotten our receipt. After the meeting I talked to the PTA president, mentioned to her my opinion that it made our organization look bad to not follow through on promises like that, and offered to send the thank-you letters in question if she had the information from the previous year.

I ended up not just sending those letters, but running that particular campaign for a few more years. I volunteered on the Box Tops for Education committee. I sent in recycled ink cartridges for the school for cash. I collected bottles and cans for my kids' classrooms to help pay for extra field trips and whatnot. (And yes, it felt like I spent an inordinate time either collecting or picking through items other people consider trash during this period. I have little pride when it comes to getting money for the school.) I served as the PTA's financial secretary for several years around the same time, counting up stacks of the grubbiest one-dollar-bills ever as I verified the totals for weekly pizza and popsicle sales prior to depositing the money in the bank. Our school started an annual festival to raise more desperately-needed money for enrichment programs, and I volunteered there, too.
This is me as a volunteer, only more glamorous.

Then Sons #1 and 2 got into the magnet at our school, which is on the same campus as the regular elementary school (the "home" school). Though I had shed a few minor duties, in addition to most of the above, I started helping with the booster club. The next year I took over as booster club president (giving up both the financial secretary post and the annual support fund chair to two separate, sane people); I had already become a festival co-chair the year before. I won't bore you with further details, but I've joked over the years about indentured servitude, and various people at the school have opined that I actually sleep in the nurse's office and that the festival storage shed is my office.

This year I may have retreated a bit from the fundraising strategizing, but I'm still around, volunteering in the  school office one morning and Son #3's classroom another morning. What I'm seeing, and what I've seen through all the years of trying to figure out every way possible to bring money into my kids' school, is a big reason why I had to take a step back.

Every year that my kids have been in school, our budget has taken a hit. The support fund was started because the school was losing funding. As our state budget woes have gone from bad to worse over the years, more funds have been whacked. Once we had math and literacy coaches to help struggling students--those went a while ago. We went from two librarians to one, to one half-time, to none. Our magnet coordinator has been half time for a few years. We lost our assistant principal altogether. Our assistant principal EIS (for special education) is now half time, splitting her time between two schools, with no chance to get to know the students for whom she administers IEPs. Our class sizes have gone up. And none of this even begins to hint at the turmoil that has been created by years of pink slips going out in the spring, to be rescinded later (or not). Teachers have retired as much to get out before things get worse as because they have genuinely reached the end of their career, and good teachers with just not quite enough experience have been forced out by layoffs. District office cuts have forced a reshuffling of administrators, meaning that on top of all our other losses, we've had a rapid turnover of principals over the last few years. We've lost days of instruction to furloughs.

As a parent, it is demoralizing to work hard all year to raise the money to give our kids weekly (!) P.E. lessons, a little art, a science lab, whatever, and then have the district whack another chunk out of the budget. I got exhausted trying to keep up morale (mine and others'), touting the importance of participating in the latest fundraiser to try to preserve the program of enrichment we already have when it began to feel like so much rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. Yes, we have made things better, kept our school going and even reached for things we didn't have before in the midst of a steadily deepening budget crisis in our state, and I don't regret the time I have spent helping those efforts. But each year it has gotten harder to get up the energy to do it all over again when time and again we've gotten the legs cut out from under us by circumstances we don't have the power to change. My admiration for our teachers and staff and my fellow parents has grown as each year, despite the challenges, we all get up and do it all again, but each time with fewer resources and more demands.
The sensible response to having your fate in the hands of California's voters.

The problems with my sons' schools stem from California's budget and governmental woes, and those aren't going to be solved any time soon. In the meantime, we're looking at another round of cuts, mid-year this time, if Proposition 30 on the ballot doesn't pass, with more cuts to come in the years to come. A competing measure, Proposition 38, wouldn't automatically stop the cuts this year, but it would generate revenue for next year and the years beyond. We're beyond the point of cutting fat from the schools, well beyond the point of trimming dubious programs. If we want to get something from our educational system (by the crudest measure, higher test scores, and by a more sensible measure, an educated populace), we have to pay for it. There is no getting something for nothing.

I'm not feeling good about the citizens of this state having the backs of our students. It's easy to rail about higher taxes and grumble about how the state government is spending the money it already has, no matter how modest the increase proposed (to put Prop 30's terms in perspective, a quarter-cent sales tax increase is the equivalent of one penny for every four dollars you spend, and I don't think I know anyone personally who makes the requisite income--$250,000 annually as an individual or $500,000 as a couple--to even see the income tax increase). Most of the people casting a ballot don't have a child in school. From the outside, the schools probably look the same to them, maybe just a little dirtier because of all the cuts to our custodial staff, and a little shabbier due to the cuts to maintenance. Or maybe not, if the custodians work as hard as the ones at our school do.

We've reached the end of where personal efforts can make up for lack of resources, though. Too many years of being in crisis mode have burned out teachers, staff, and parents, and those brave faces are looking a little strained. It's time to stop pretending that we can get educational results at the top of national ranks when our per-pupil spending, teacher to student ratio, and a host of other measures are at the bottom of national averages. Nobody expects to get a Mercedes on a Kia budget when they are car shopping; can we please stop pretending that it is possible when we're talking about public education? California public schools need the voters of California to help us; we need to have the funds to keep going.

On November 7th, the day after the election, is my weekly volunteer day in Son #3's classroom. I'll still be there no matter what the outcome.
Oh, but by the way, I'm not above doing this, either. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Paranoid Mama

It's natural, as parents, to dread phone calls from the school in the middle of the day. Usually the cause can only be one of two things: your child is sick, or your child has done something so egregiously wrong that you have to be involved immediately, rather than getting the bad news at the end of the day when you pick them up. Thankfully, my experience has mostly been with the former (including a couple of hilarious-in-retrospect phone calls when Son #1 was in kindergarten, because he had a propensity for absent-mindedly walking into poles). Whatever the cause, though, seeing the school's number pop up on caller ID mid-morning always elevates my heart rate.

I resemble this remark.

Monday morning I got the call midway through an extremely sweaty jog/walk: the school nurse was calling because Son #3 was in her office complaining of chest pains, though he looked fine. I was a bit distracted as I simultaneously tried to talk to the nurse (and briefly to my son) and started trying to map out what this might mean. I've got a little bit of experience at this mom thing, and I've found that children who are genuinely feeling bad are rarely in a state to complain eloquently about it (as Son #3 was apparently doing). However, what if I were wrong? What could chest pains in a kindergartener mean? I wrapped up my conversation and promised to call the nurse back when I got home. Then I rushed back home, trying to decide if I cared if the people in the main office saw me in my sweaty exercise clothes or not, wondering how hard it would be to get him in to see the pediatrician before the end of the school day (when I would have to pick up his brothers), and mentally chucking the rest of my to-do list out of the window.

At home, I phoned the nurse back. She had sent him back to class, but was going to go over and check on him. I wandered aimlessly around the house, not wanting to hop into the now desperately-needed shower lest I miss her phone call. When she finally called back, imagine the anticlimax: he was fine, and the nurse and his teacher, upon conferring, had concluded that his complaint was actually the result of the frustration he was experiencing as they worked on learning to write the letter "e." (As his teacher told me at the end of the day, he has experienced a whole range of bodily aches when asked to work on things that don't come easily to him.) The nurse had told him kindly that he was okay and that he was going to stay in school.

It was all well and good, except for the avalanche of irrational guilt I felt buried under for not being immediately at my child's beck and call the second the school's phone call came. Though I may joke about bon-bon eating and mani-pedi getting while my kids are at school, the truth is that I tend to stick close to home, within easy reach of the phone in case I'm urgently needed. I tend not to schedule anything that would take me far away or require a lot of time; a couple of weeks ago I scheduled a hair appointment on a school day and felt completely irresponsible the entire time. If that dreaded call from school had come, I would have had to tell them that I was unavailable to come get my child because I was having my hair dyed. Worst. Mother. Ever. Right?

It doesn't actually work this way. Sadly.

I know this is crazy. Frankly, if my kids were to have a horrific accident at school, I would hope that I'd be the second phone call the school would make, AFTER calling 9-1-1. But it is hard to shake the feeling that responsible, committed, excellent motherhood requires my whole focus all the time, even when my kids are not with me. It's a quite a bit like imagining the force of your concentration is keeping the airplane you're flying in up in the air. Completely bogus, and yet superstitiously impossible to fully dismiss.

Of course I like to believe that I'm important in my boys' lives. However, when it comes to lurking at home because I fear that my absence may cause terrible things to happen in their lives should I not be available for a phone call from school at any second, I think I need to call b.s. on myself. I can go get a latte with a friend without my kids' world caving in on them. And if I trust the school to educate my kids, I should trust that even if I can't show up the second I get a phone call telling me that, say, Son #2 threw up and is in the nurse's office, they can still hold down the fort until I can get there.

Giving my kids things to complain to their future therapists about--just one of my many services.

Parenthood is hard. But it helps to take a good hard look at what is possible as a parent, and what is just paranoia. I talked to Son #3 about his work, and I reminded him that not everything he learns in school is going to come easy. That it is okay to make mistakes, and he shouldn't be anxious about it. That learning to deal with frustration is a great skill, because many worthwhile things in life are going to take some effort to learn. Do I think he's going to learn this lesson overnight? No. And do I think that if I had been sitting at home instead of trying to get some exercise that this episode would have gone down any differently? I might have spent a little less time afraid to get in the shower and grossing myself out with my drenched sweatiness, but otherwise, no. As a friend of mine once admonished me, it's time to land the helicopter, Mom.