Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Dominican High School, doing diversity well

Dominican High School, where both of my sons graduated, and where my daughter Teenasia is now a freshman, is a microcosm of both Milwaukee and the nation. The population of the school is a little more than half white, with our minority population made up of African American, Latino and Asian students, including a dozen or so students from China. The socio-economic status of families vary from struggling to well off.  
            One week after the presidential election, Dominican held its monthly parent association meeting. Each meeting has a focus—study skills; drug and alcohol prevention; state of the school. This meeting’s focus was school programs supporting diversity and inclusion. The administration and parent diversity committee leaders were on deck to speak. With racial, ethnic and gender issues forefront since Trump’s election, the timing of the meeting felt appropriate—our nation was talking about diversity, it made sense that our school community should be doing the same.
 As I walked into the meeting, I was a little afraid — not because I thought parents would rant regarding their political differences, but because I feared the opposite. I was afraid that in a national climate charged with tension around issues of race, gender, religion and policy, our diverse Dominican parents would play it too polite, sidestepping the issue so as to have a tidy and uneventful meeting. I was afraid that we wouldn’t dare to dive under the surface of diversity, where life is nuanced and complicated.
            I had nothing to fear.
            The meeting was amazing and left me wishing it could have been televised and shown to U.S. citizens everywhere as an example of what dialog and understanding look like. Unlike the echo-chambers of social media discussion, where people of only one viewpoint share similar experiences and beliefs, our meeting included parents who voted for Trump and parents who voted for Clinton; we were male and female; black, white and Latino.
            Dominican administration led with comments on school initiatives aimed at fostering a healthy atmosphere of inclusion. The principal acknowledged that Dominican’s almost all-white faculty did not mirror the diversity of the student body, and hiring challenges were exacerbated by a shrinking pool of teachers of color. Responding to suggestions from several parents last spring, the school began a course of diversity training for teachers. The principal turned the meeting over to the trainer, an African American past-parent and Dominican board member, who presented information about the content and goals of the training.
            When she finished, a white mom’s hand went up.
            “When I walk through the school, I see kids from all backgrounds getting along,” she said. “My son has an eclectic group of friends. Are there problems here I’m not aware of?”
            It was the question that defined the evening.
Both the school principal, who is white, and the leader of the parent diversity committee, who is African American, assured the group that Dominican’s diversity initiatives—teacher training; parent diversity committee; student diversity committee; multicultural club; black heritage club— were not reactive to specific incidents or major problems, but were part of an ongoing effort to recognize the challenges inherent to a diverse community and equip members of that community with tools be successful.
            The white mother nodded, but still looked a bit puzzled, as if she wanted to understand the inherent challenges, but didn’t. An African American father of a junior jumped in.
            “My son loves Dominican,” he said. “He’s friends with kids from a variety of backgrounds. But he still has to work hard to assimilate—he’s still a minority. And that’s the value of the black heritage club— he can be comfortable and better able to reach out to other buddies who might be white or Latino who aren’t part of that club—either to invite them in, so they can learn something, or to just introduce them to his friends from the club.”
            I watched the mom who had initially asked the question listening and saw her move from confusion to understanding. The father’s explanation about working to fit in resonated.
            From there the conversation moved to other challenges. An African American mother spoke of her son’s experience as the only minority in an advanced placement class, and her own reflection of walking the line between high expectations and too much pressure. A white mom asked how progress in diversity could be measured—how would we know if our initiatives were making a difference? A Latina mom told of her daughter’s sadness in response to flippancy from some white students as to just how grave the immigration situation could become for friends and family of Latino students. The mother blinked back tears. In response to her comments, the diversity trainer took a moment to discuss the difference between intent versus impact and how it’s not enough to say “I didn’t mean to…” Impact of comments or actions trumps intent.  The principal noted that assemblies for each class the next day would address sensitivity to the election’s impact.
As the conversation continued, the mood was serious and thoughtful. No one interrupted, and no one took the floor to promote an agenda. In talking about missteps of some students, the school president commented that while hateful words or actions would always be subject to strong disciplinary proceedings, the school also took the position that teenagers, by the nature of their youth, would make mistakes in all arenas, including diversity, and it was up to the school and parents to educate and guide students in the correct direction.
            After going an hour overtime, the meeting closed amid comments that we should all get together in a social setting, not just at a meeting. We walked to our cars, chatting in pairs or in small groups.
            I arrived home. I didn’t turn on the TV. I didn’t log into Facebook. The emotion and issues raised at the meeting clung to my heart. My responsibility, and indeed the responsibility of all of Dominican was made clear. We still had much work to do—as a school and as a nation. But the meeting gave me such hope that Dominican parents were up for the challenge, ready for the work. Indeed, the conversation itself was part of that work. For in order to move forward, we have to first listen.


Friday, October 7, 2016

Strong marriages, perspectives from others

When our kids were all under eight, Bill talked me into allowing him to do worm composting in our basement. He sold me on the environmental benefits of the process and said it would also be educational for the kids to bring our table waste to the basement and see what an important job worms do creating rich soil. On the day that he came home with five-foot trays filled with dirt and hundreds of small, red round worms, I was less than enthusiastic and wished I had not agreed to it.
            “This was not in the vows,” I said.
            “Hey, I wasn’t the one who married me,” Bill said.
            He was right. One of the things that I loved about Bill when we were dating was his commitment to the environment. He had Ansel Adams photos of national parks all over his apartment; he rode his bike to work; he toted a reusable lunch container to work. While we were dating, I might not have been able to see worm composting as part of our future together, but I had certainly known that a commitment to the environment was part of who Bill was.
            “I wasn’t the one who married me,” has become a recurring line in our marriage. We use it to gently remind a spouse struggling with a habit or behavior of the other that we both chose each other, idiosyncrasies and all. The line reminds me of how I’ve heard friendship defined: Friendship is knowing fully the good and the bad of another person, and moving forward with the relationship, anyway, accepting both.
            For Bill and me, and many couples I know, one of the keys to a long-lasting and healthy marriage has less to do with date nights or or weekends away, and more to do with the mindset that each partner brings into each day of the marriage.

Holding onto gratitude—especially when life gets crazy

            Couples in strong marriages make a conscious effort to be thankful for their spouses. Miguel, married almost 20 years to Juanita, comments: “We can't seem to find date night time. We are working to meet needs of kids, care for aging parents and we are bad at putting our marriage ahead of all that.  Nevertheless, when I feel like I am grinding it out, day after day, I remind myself that I am so grateful to be sharing all of this with someone else who cares as deeply about our kids and parents,” Miguel said. “Basically, no one I'd rather do this with.  I also am deeply grateful that Juanita likes to do the things that I don't really like to do and think it is mutual. I appreciate the teamwork that we forge together.”

Consciously look for the good

            The hard-to-pay bills, dishes piled on the counter, and the forgotten appointment can move a spouse in one of two directions. The daily annoyances of life with another person can serve as proof points as to why a marriage isn’t working, or they can propel a spouse to look more deeply into the other person and into the marriage to find all that is worthwhile. Married couples who enjoy each other don’t necessarily have fewer issues to work though, but they may take a different approach to their challenges than those with less satisfying marriages.
            For Jenny and Brian, parents of three children under 10, perspective is key. Jenny notes that intentionally bringing to mind what attracted her to her husband brings positive feelings to mind. “I flashback to our time dating,” she said. Jenny also mentioned the importance of getting out of the day-to-day environment and interact with others to bring freshness to the relationship.  “If I'm frustrated with him, I always change my attitude when we are out socializing with friends or family and I see him interacting with others and I easily remember how awesome he is and why I married him.”
            Amy, married 23 years to Kevin, jokingly said that if she’s in a difficult moment she allows herself to go morbid. “I think about life without Kevin and it really makes me appreciate him,” she said. Like Jenny, Amy takes herself out of the present moment and into the past. “I think of when we dated and how much I wanted to marry him. And I remember all the reasons why. When I do both those things I am all in again.”

Lean on honesty, humor and faith

            Brigid, married 23 years to Bob, said that she has found that looking for the underlying truth in a moment she might be tempted to quarrel has worked tremendously well for the couple.  “I committed to be honest with myself rather than play games. If I feel vulnerable or fear that I am not loved, I am committed to stating that truth rather than blowing a situation out of proportion in order to get the reassurance that I need,” she said. Brigid’s practice could likely save some marriages. Some couples find themselves in endless rounds of arguments that have little to do with the underlying issue: Do you love me? Brigid balances her serious, intentional approach with quick wit. “I go out of my way to tease my husband.  You don't tease people you don't like,” she said.
            Andrea and Greg, married 23 years, see the early years of marriage as critical. They credit their Catholic upbringing and long, committed marriages on both sides of the family as helping them with the more challenging early years of marriage—when misunderstanding sometimes led to hurt and distance. “As we have grown together as a couple, the trust in all areas has grown,” Andrea said. “We strive to be and kind to one another and to put one another first. We operate from a place of deep compassion and respect. This has been the glue that binds us together.”

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Advice from other moms

No one talks shop more than mothers. And by “shop” I don’t mean talking about the paid position a mother might have in addition to her job as mom. We talk about that too — projects at work; our bosses or those who report to us — but not nearly with the intensity or the passion that we talk about our unpaid and more important job of motherhood.
            I have absorbed so much wisdom from my friends who are moms. Some of it has come to me directly, when I’ve explained a problem or a question and they’ve given me advice. Some of it has come from observing my friends as they’ve skillfully parented a tantruming toddler or a sullen teen. I’ve received advice over cups of coffee and glasses of wine; via email and text; on walks, bike rides and runs, and even on a chairlift, riding to the top of a ski hill. My friend Andrea, a much better skier than I, had to wait for me at the bottom of the hill to continue her advice because I couldn’t keep up with her slaloming.
            So with twenty-one years of advice coming to me from all directions, it is only right that I share some of it. 
Baby your baby: My friend Patty, mother of five and champion breastfeeder (she breastfed her twins without using bottles), taught me this. The time parents put into holding, rocking, gazing at, and yes, breastfeeding a baby will come back a hundredfold. The cuddling, skin-to-skin contact, and sheer time together those first two years builds a secure attachment that is the foundation for everything else. Because of my years as a foster parent, receiving children who missed all or some of this some of this foundation, I understand that there are other opportunities a parent has beyond the first two years to make sure a child feels secure and well-loved. But if you are privileged enough to give birth or receive a baby through adoption, give that baby as much of yourself and your time as you are able, even if it means rearranging other aspects of your life to make that happen.
Don’t be afraid be in charge: My friend Carol and I taught grade school together before we both became parents. As teachers in our early 20s, Carol and I had to learn that what is in a child’s best interest and what makes that child happy are often two different things, and it is the adult’s job to choose the best interest of the child. Carol is my most direct friend, and calls it as she sees it. I can almost hear the eye-roll over the phone as she tells me about a friend of hers that I don’t know, who let their eight-year-old run the show at home and then wonder why he’s getting in trouble at school.
Eat dinner together: My advice from friends regarding family dinner have come to me primarily through the sharing of cooking tips and good recipes, because I grew up with family dinners and benefitted from many nights of Shake n’ Bake chicken, potatoes and good conversation. Research underlined what I saw in my own family and among my friends who valued the evening meal. According to a study cited in a recent Washington Post article, children who have about five meals a week with their families have substantially higher academic achievement than their peers who eat in shifts or as a family, but with the TV on. Teens who eat regular family meals are less likely to engage in smoking, drinking, drugs and early sexual behavior. Regular meals together are linked to keeping teen depression and anxiety at bay as well as to healthier eating and fewer eating disorders. Children who eat regular meals with their parents are more likely to have a positive outlook on their life and their future. A regular prayer before dinner weaves faith into everyday life.
Delay the Devices: My friend Amy, a mom of three teens who chose to not allow smart phones until late into high school, shared with me stories of social media-obsessed and anxiety-ridden kids she knew and helped me approach this arena with healthy caution. Other friends have talked me through their experience using parental control software and apps such as Net Nanny, Norton or Qustodio to limit and monitor their kids’ online behavior. And a few friends’ honest accounts of their fails in protecting kids adequately from porn, social media bullying or late-night texting propelled me to understanding what was at stake. Our freshman daughter was thrilled to finally receive her first phone a couple weeks ago. Even though it only has calling and texting abilities, not Internet, she is sufficiently plugged into her fun and active social life. We’ve tied the use of her phone to her grade point average—the higher each Friday’s GPA, the later the phone can stay up the nights of the following week, ranging from 7 to 9 p.m.

Possibly the most important piece of parenting advice is this, however: Each mother should have another mom or two that you can go to with anything. Because sometimes a friend may offer no answer at all, no advice. Just a good hug on a bad day. Thank you, friends.