Monday, April 27, 2015

My Marriage is a Teenager

Last week, I traveled with my husband, our two boys, and my brother to a small town in Indiana to celebrate and memorialize the life of my grandmother Gigi who passed away last November.  It was a bittersweet weekend, as family gatherings around funerals tend to be.  We lamented the fact that we only gather under the saddest of circumstances, but there was joy in the gathering nonetheless.  We told stories of Gigi's long life, we visited the family farm, slid down the banister of our collective childhood memories and we wandered the town's museum which displays our family's history alongside the history of all the other families who built the small farming community.

We gathered at a small church outside of town to learn that 88 years ago on that very day, my great-grandparents were married in that same spot.  My Granddad and Gigi were married there as well, a couple of decades later, and remained one another's most important person for nearly 64 years, until death parted them, as vowed.  I stood on that sacred spot to speak, sharing memories of Gigi as a grandmother and great-grandmother to my kids, but I also shared the legacy she placed most firmly on my heart -- that of her devoted marriage. 


My grandparent's marriage was not a fairy tale.  They didn't make it 64 years because they had it easier than others, or somehow avoided all of life's stumbles and falls.  They raised four kids together (three of them born within 13 months of one another) while my granddad traveled around the world for his job, leaving Gigi on her own with the often rambunctious (and that might be a generous word choice) kids for long periods of times.  They faced all the normal frustrations and heartaches of parenting and life, but they faced them together.  They spoke every day when they were apart, and as the kids grew, Gigi traveled with Granddad when he left.  He never worked a single anniversary of their entire marriage.  They compromised for one another, shared in each other's interests and hobbies and I witnessed them let the other be right on numerous occasions.  Those are only the small pieces I'm privileged to know.  Like all marriages, theirs surely contained all the highs and lows and arguments and redemption that are theirs alone.   But through it all, they knew that at the end of the day, they wanted to share their journey more than they wanted anything else.   On the morning that Gigi passed away, Granddad shared his loss with the family, calling Gigi his "sweetheart, lover, love of my life, travel companion, roommate, mother of my children, and wife."  We don't need fairy tales when we have a real-life love story like that.



Our marriage isn't a fairy tale either.  Sometimes it's described a little rose-colored by friends and family on the outside, and I understand that perception.  I know that none of us truly knows the whole heart of another human being, yet alone another couple's marriage.  There are pieces of our marriage we share with others, just as there are pieces we will take to our graves, those parts that are ours alone to have and to hold, to cherish, to forgive, to celebrate and to honor.   But I want to be absolutely clear that we work hard for our marriage.  We make daily and monthly and yearly choices to serve one another, to communicate well, to resolve issues, to celebrate small victories, to lean into one another at every bump in the road rather then turn away.  I often quote a Ben Folds song when I speak of my husband, saying that, "I know I am the luckiest," but I also know it's more than luck.  We're lucky not because some stars aligned and our souls were woven together before we were born; we're lucky because we both keep choosing to intertwine them every day.

Jason and I married relatively young, at 22 and 23 years of age.  Last year, we celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary and in some of our social circles, we're the old married couple.  While I would be remiss to imply that 13 years of marriage is short, or easy, or not long enough to celebrate, last week,  I saw the length of our marriage through new eyes.  I realized that our marriage is just a teenager. 

Anyone who has raised kids to their teenage years (or remembers being a teenager well) knows that this is an important feat in and of itself.  A lot changes in the first 13 years of life, as it did in our first 13 years of marriage.   We were together several years before we married, lived out a long-distance relationship, studied and traveled abroad together, and set up our first adult home, complete with cockroaches the size of mice and leaking ceilings.  We married right out of college while serving in AmeriCorps, living on a tiny income in Austin, Texas.  We've lived in two additional states since then, had several career changes, birthed two children, gone back to school, adopted and lost pets, traveled, created art and theater and music, ran races and faced illnesses, heartaches and loss side by side.  We have this binder of the love letters we wrote during our early years together, volumes of verbose prose (some of which I can't read without blushing), but more than 13 years later, we now speak a language through our eyes and actions that is clearer than any words we've ever written one another.  We've remained each other's biggest fan and most important person in all the changes of 13 years.

But 13 years pitted against the span of a lifetime makes our marriage but a brand new teenager.  And how exciting is that?  Because teenagers?   They're kind of amazing.  Teenagers are perched on the brink of becoming, full of optimism and possibility, yet rebellious enough to question all the conventions and write their own life's journey.  They can still envision so many possible futures, while living deeply entrenched in the present.  They sneak out of windows to be together and make out with reckless abandon and stare up at the night stars hand in hand as if time stops in that moment.  Yes, please.  To all of that.  And if we are so lucky to live to see our 64th anniversary, that means we have more than 50 years still ahead of us.  That's a lifetime together yet to be written.  That's humbling and thrilling to me. 

I don't know all the stories we'll write but if I had to put money on it, I'd bet on at least one more move, a couple of new jobs, and another pet or two.  I'd also bet on times of sickness and health, loss and celebration, and the unexpected at every other turn.  

But I've never been much of a betting woman.  I'd rather just slip my hand into Jason's, choose a path and keep on walking, together. 

Thank you Granddad and Gigi for letting us bear witness to your love.









Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Taking Back Your Square Footage

This past Sunday was my official last day as Stuff Manager in my home and also marked the end of the 40 Bags in 40 Day challenge and I'm happy to report that well over 40 bags of belongings have left this house to find new homes (or in some cases, the bottom of a trashcan).  But before I delve into a lessons learned kind of post, I want to take a minute to reflect on the space this has created in our home.  Because here's where the rubber meets the road for so many of us caught in a binge/purge cycle of consumption; we fill the spaces we've created with the objects of least resistance instead of allowing them to become the spaces we fill with our intentions for our lives.  Whether the new empty spaces are a few shelves in our basements, some hangers in our closets, or an entire room, it's time to ask ourselves a few questions before making any decisions.

What values define me or my family?   Does my home reflect those values in its use or space or even decor?

What activities do I want to create more time and space for in my life (and subsequently, home)?  

What brings me or my family joy? 

If you're playing along, take a look around your home and ask yourself if you see the answers to these questions reflected in your choices of belongings, decor, or even the purposes you've assigned to each room.  For instance, if you said that creativity is a high value for your family and you want to make more time for music, but all of your instruments are stored in their cases in a corner of your basement, your home is not acting as a conduit for your values.  The good news is, we're grown-ups and so we get to make whatever choices we want about our homes.  That formal dining room that you eat in once a year and serves as china storage the other 364 days?  Get this, you can actually turn that room into a music room.  I know, it's crazy.  You can take the table out of the room and move your instruments into the room and even hang on them on the walls.  "But wait, then I won't have a formal dining room!"  Yes, I know.  You won't.  It's okay.  I'm going to let you in on a little secret.  There are actually no home decorating police that will stop by your house and fine you if you use the space differently than the builder intended.  You can do whatever you want.  Your home does not have to look like a model home.  Repeat after me:  "HGTV, you are not the boss of me."  Doesn't that feel kind of good?

I want to share a couple of examples of some home design rebels I know in real life.  They've chosen to change up the way they use their space to amplify the things they love and so far, no one has gotten arrested. 

This is my friend Kristen's home.  Kristen is a knitting evangelist.  Not only does she arrange weekly knitting gatherings in various places all over town (I'm convinced she plans them in public places to convert non-knitters to her yarn-addicted ways) but she also leaves yarn around the house in both beautiful and functional ways.  This allows her to grab a project at any time, and also to offer one to a friend.  

 These balls of yarn aren't just decoration.  You are welcome to grab one and start a project at Kristen's house, she'll even get you started.


 Kristen keeps her needles and current projects right by the couch so she doesn't have to search when she's ready to knit.

 Kristen calls this a "friendship knitting bowl."  Anyone can pick up the unfinished project and work on it, and she's used this as a teaching tool as well. 

This next home belongs to my friends JuLee and Jeff.  JuLee and Jeff are board game enthusiasts.  When I first met JuLee, they had a cute gaming space set up in their finished basement.  In my book, they'd already accomplished the goal of creating space for something they loved, but they took it a step further.  They decided to bring the board games that had unified their family front and center by turning their formal living room into a game-themed playing room.  I love the way they boldly declare their passion by giving it such prime real estate in their home. 


JuLee and Jeff's game room is the first room you see when you enter their home. 

So, as this challenge comes to a close, I'm thinking about ways I can take back my square footage.  I've ordered some extra ukulele and banjo wall mounts so our instruments can be available in both our bedroom (where they currently live) and our family room (the other room where we often play).  I'm re-purposing a shelf next to my dining room table to hold all of our art supplies so they are at an arm's length when we are sitting down together at the table.  I'm handing over the newly empty storage area under the basement stairs to the boys to dream up ideas for a hideout.  And mostly, I'm giving thought to any item that enters our home before allowing it to take up any of the space that we've created.  

 We've got more ukuleles than we know what to do with.  
These wall mounts are sort of essential in our home. 

How about you?  Is there a room in your house that is rarely if ever used?  Could it be re-purposed into a space that will bring more joy into your life?  Or perhaps you live in a small space and don't have an entire room to re-purpose; could you find ways to incorporate your passions into the space you currently use the most?  Or could you sprinkle it around the house, like Kristen does with yarn?  Share your ideas, or if you are already a home design rebel, share a picture!  I would love to see how you are filling your space with intention.

This post is part of a series on quitting your job as a Stuff Manager.  Drop back in to read more about my journey over the next forty days, or subscribe by email if you don't want to miss a post!  I look forward to hearing about your own resignation. 


1.  Letter of Resignation - On quitting my job as Stuff Manager
2.  I'm Never Going to Make That Beer Bottle Cap Table - On letting go of things that aren't for us
3.  But I'll Need That in the Zombie Apocalypse (and Other Excuses) - On excuses for our clutter  
4.  Donating Outside the Box -  On finding a great place for your donations
5.  7 Ideas for Managing Digital Clutter - On minimizing distractions and clutter on your devices 
6.  Is Organizing Just Well-Managed Hoarding? - On the difference between organizing and purging 
7.  Getting to Know Mr. Jones:  An Antidote to Consumerism - On exploring where we got all of this stuff in the first place and a communal antidote to over-consumption
8.  Taking Back Your Square Footage -  On creating space in your home that reflects your intentions and values





Friday, April 3, 2015

Moms on a Mission

Yesterday, I used this platform to encourage parents to add their voice to the national conversation about education.  

Today, I'm excited to share two parents who have done just that in my local community as part of the Idea Chasers series.  Idea Chasers focuses on people with ideas, how they go about implementing them, what kinds of obstacles they face, and how they reach their goals.  I love talking about ideas of all shapes and sizes, and education is one of my favorite topics. 

About a year ago, Elizabeth McGowan and Maggie Harr met online while researching candidates for the local school board election.  They found common ground in their desire to make information about the candidates and the events of school board meetings more accessible to parents in the community.  Moms on a Mission was the result, a Facebook-based online tool that provides monthly reports of school board meetings and in-depth interviews with current directors and candidates.  

I had the opportunity to turn the tables and interview the two of them and here's what they had to say about their experience so far:

Why did you decide to center your education action piece around the school board? 

Maggie: My experience as a mother of a school-aged child was to be involved in his classroom and school. Most of the parents I know are the same way. With the increasing challenges facing our growing district, our classroom teachers make every effort to keep the classroom environment an optimal place for all children to learn. However, the district level decisions are having a greater impact by increasing class sizes and reducing resources. The school board ultimately are the ones tasked with approving all of the policy that affects our children and yet, the opportunities to see them at work are limited to a monthly meeting.

Elizabeth:  The school board makes really important decisions that directly affect our kids and community. I learn something new at every meeting, and it's pretty unreal how far the ripple rolls as a result of those decisions. There was very little parent input and we felt the need to reach out to our fellow parents to ensure decisions weren't being made without them. The board is supposed to represent the wishes of the community. They can't do that if they don't hear from us.

What is the number one goal you hope to accomplish through Moms on a Mission?

Maggie: We have a three part mission: to inform, engage and create accountability. At the heart of our efforts is offering busy parents a way to stay connected to the important decisions that are being made at the district level and to encourage communication with our elected board members so that they make decisions that reflect our community.

Elizabeth:  We bring what happens at the board meetings right to parents' computer screens, and in doing so, encourage them to be more deeply informed and to advocate for their families.  It's unrealistic to think that everyone in our community can attend a 2-5 hour meeting each month. Also, the education system is really complicated, and full of scary acronyms. If you don't understand the system, the meetings can be, at times, hard to follow. It was definitely a sharp learning curve for me as someone without an education background!

Maggie:  It's also important to us to provide parents and stakeholders another opportunity to access the information necessary to be an informed voter.  This will ensure that our district is one of the best in the state.

Have you met any resistance to your project, and if so, how have you dealt with that?

Elizabeth:   Well, if you're going to end up doing a few news segments about the school board's lack of action, you're probably not going to get a real warm welcome when you show up to the school board meetings. (Although to be fair, some of the board members are as frustrated with the gridlock as we are!) Also, if you have any sort of personal presence online, you'll need to be prepared for attacks and people lashing out at you. This week someone told me that public education was a liberal agenda. Ha! Can you imagine? That kind of commentary only makes me want to work harder to create more non-political and kid-focused conversations with parents. People want their kids have a great school experience. They don't need that to be politicized. 

Maggie:   Most of my experiences have been that of encouragement and parents thankful to have the "inside scoop" on important issues facing our district. All but one of the current Board of Education members and four out of seven Board of Education candidates have sat down to interviews. Any of the negative feedback that I've received has been centered around those individuals that have chosen not to speak with us as a parent group. That to me is concerning and only fuels me to keep going. 

What has been the most surprising thing you've learned over the last year?

Maggie: I have been surprised to see the actions and statements made by some board members, without a clear channel to address my concerns. If a parent has a question, problem or needs assistance with a staff member or administrator, even another student, there are clearly outlined channels to take. Unfortunately, that is not the case with our school board members. It is frustrating to have no way to address the people making important decisions that greatly impact your children's education.

Elizabeth:  There isn't a clear channel of action to hold board members accountable if they are not following the code of ethics or upholding their oath of office. That concerns me. We have direct violations that continue without consequence. Every elected office should offer a clear set of checks and balances. 

What is something you'd like your readers to know about you that they may not know?

Maggie:  The biggest thing that I get asked is why I do this. Am I looking to run for school board, did my child have a bad experience, am I bored? And the answer to all of those questions is "No."  I have a huge bias and am very up front about my agenda... my kids. I am not looking for political gain and am a huge supporter of public education for my community regardless of the personal choices I make for each of my children. I am a busy mom, volunteer in the community and take on more projects than I have time to complete. However, I saw the need and I want to do everything in my power to make sure that our fabulous educators have the support and resources necessary to do their jobs.

Elizabeth:  That taking a few minutes to read the newsletter and then send your thoughts and concerns via email to board members has incredible impact. It's also a way for parents to have an action piece to their child advocacy. If you don't get a response: blast them. Social media is an incredible tool. Make it your Facebook post. Let your friends know your thoughts when you're at a six hour little league marathon. Just talk about it! We can't surrender these decisions to our elected officials. We have to take action and have a voice.

It was a privilege to hear from these two parents.  One of the themes that came up in our conversation more than once is the idea that all of our small action pieces come together to form and shape education policy and our school community.  These women realize that all families cannot attend board meetings and do not expect every family to make that a priority, but they can attend those meetings for them and share the responsibility by reporting the decisions that are being made.  All parents have something to bring to the table and Moms on a Mission hopes to encourage parents to identify what that action piece is and get involved.  

For more information on Moms on a Mission, you can visit their Facebook page.  


Thursday, April 2, 2015

It's Time to Tell the Truth About Standardized Tests

Many of you know that we are a homeschooling family.  Others of you know that we are also advocates for public education.  I don't often use this platform to talk about education issues, but today, I have a few things to say. 

I want to be up front about my credentials.  I've never been a full-time classroom teacher.  I do not have a degree in education.  I've worked in four different school districts in three different states in a variety of capacities, but none that has given me the unique and valuable perspective our classroom teachers can bring to the table.  The largest credential I bring to the table is that of parent. 

And I have to tell you, when it comes to the future of education and our children, I think that more than qualifies me (and all of you other parents) for a seat at the table in this discussion.  In fact, I think part of the reason we are where we stand today is that at some point, we allowed ourselves to believe the opposite. 


Yesterday, the news broke that eleven teachers in Atlanta were convicted of racketeering in a cheating scandal. The teachers and administrators had changed test answers on state standardized testing to improve the outcomes of district test results in order to boost the district's overall rating, to keep their jobs and also for personal gain (as some performance based bonuses were tied to test results). 

I'm not going to condone the actions of these teachers and administrators. I don't think there is any doubt that their actions were unethical. It's disheartening that this scandal (which apparently was larger than the eleven people convicted) was able to take hold in such a wide-spread manner before coming to light or someone stopping it. So please hear me when I say that I don't believe this should happen without consequence. 

But I think we need to drop the bullshit and be honest about the toxic environment that is leading to this kind of poor decision making. This is NOT an isolated incident. This is happening in other places around the country and has been for a very long time. When I was just 21 years old and fresh out of college, I got a full-time substitute job at a middle school in Austin, Texas. The year was 2000, and the formula for tying public school funding to standardized test results in Texas was being touted as a national model by then presidential candidate George W. Bush.  The Texas model was the front-runner of what would become the federal No Child Left Behind policy.   Behind the scenes in my Texas school, many teachers already loathed the policy, and there was ample gossip about the ways schools all over the state "cheated" to increase the scores on the tests. While these teachers were not erasing answers like the teachers in Georgia (at least not that I know of, everything I heard was rumor), they were doing things like throwing out test sheets of students who didn't "look like they were trying" because you only had to have a certain percentage of the student body participate in the test. These teachers were not doing this for personal gain, no bonuses were tied to test results.  They acted out of desperation to maintain funding and resources for their already depleted schools.  They acted out of loyalty to their students.

The news stories about Georgia are often led with the headline "Cheating Our Students" and the convicted educators await sentencing that could result in up to twenty years of imprisonment.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Twenty years.  In prison. 

This is cowardice.  We don't have the courage to address the elephant in the room, so we will imprison teachers instead.  Strip them of their teaching license, require them to pay back the funding they received, give them community service hours.  But do not imprison them for a poor response to a broken system.  Do you know what is REALLY cheating our students?  Policies that tie school funding to test performance. Policies that remove funding from the schools that need it most. Policies that create such anxiety around these tests that people are willing to risk their careers and personal freedom to alter the outcome. 




This has to stop. Teachers, parents and administrators have to create a united front around this issue. There are examples of this happening around the country, where administrators are supporting their teachers and students in opting out of testing, but there are still so many schools afraid to push back. And I get it. They need their funding. 

But not only does it make no sense to tie funding to test outcomes (taking funding from an already failing school is not going to help it improve) but these tests also don't address the reasons some schools are failing in the first place. You know who can tell you those reasons? The teachers who work there. I'm not opposed to all forms of assessment. I realize schools need to evaluate their students, but I believe assessments can and should be locally developed to address the unique needs of each school.  They should go beyond the test answers to include the assessments of the actual human teachers working with the actual human students, because only they can tell the whole story. And the whole story includes the student's test scores, but also if the student had breakfast, is living in poverty, works two jobs in addition to school, has been in three foster homes that year, the list goes on. 

I don't have the answers here. If you do, I'd love to hear them. But I do believe we've spent the last 15 years continuing to move in the wrong direction. And I think most people know it, and that's why we keep updating and creating new policies to address it. We change the number of assessments or the type of assessment. We change what we assess and how. We change funding formulas. But really, we're just running in circles. It's time to start from scratch, and we need leadership that is brave enough to say, "You know what? We were wrong. This isn't working. Let's find a new way." 

If you are a parent, I'm asking you to add your voice to this conversation.  Find an action piece you can take.  Call your state or federal representatives.  Attend a school board meeting.  Vote in an election.  Share your ideas even if they seem completely outside the current narrative.  Your idea might be the idea we need.  And remember, when it comes to the issue of education, you do not need any additional letters behind your name to be a part of the conversation.  

The letters  P - A - R - E - N - T  are more than enough.  

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