The Poky Little Pundit


I play like a girl and I’m proud of it

Cristo Redendor may be beautiful, but it also represents a nation trapped by the Catholic dogma, which dictates no abortions and no contraception. (Image: National Geographic)

Cristo Redentor may be beautiful, but it also represents a nation shaped by Catholic dogma, which dictates no abortions and no contraception. (Image: National Geographic)

There are two memories of my recent trip to Brazil that are ingrained in my brain for life. The first is riding a very crowded public bus through Rio. The driver took a corner so fast that the whole bus lifted onto two wheels. Upon landing it, the whole bus erupted in cheers. The second is a gathering of men in an airport terminal, intently watching a women’s indoor volleyball game. The stadium was packed to the rafters, and men stopped mid-stride to catch the on-screen action.

And if you don’t yet get what was so special about the second one, let me try again. This was a WOMEN’S game on live TV. These women were fully-clothed, serious athletes. And MEN were watching it without irony. Not mocking a ‘girl’ game. Not ogling body parts. Just boys watching girls play sports for fun.

Brazil was a conundrum to me (and way more ‘developing nation’ than I thought it was going to be). They have a female president, but outside our hotel, I saw the usual developing nation female employment otherwise known as prostitution. Always the same image – skinny, attractive local girl tottering off after a fat, white male.

On the beaches in Rio, men were equally as vain as women – if not more so. I saw men combing their greased hair in car windows, doing pull-ups beachside, running in 90 degree heat through the sand. Women with gloriously round bottoms, meanwhile, lounged serenely on sarongs. Men were by far and away the head-turners in a crowd of people (though I may be slightly biased in my outlook here). And for possibly the first time in my life, I felt encouraged to walk around in a bikini with no cover-up on – even with a slightly oversized posterior in tow. Just do as the Brazilian women do and shake your jelly with joy.

Like many big cities in developing nations, Rio is surging ahead because women are limiting the number of children they have with contraception. (Abortions are illegal – it’s a Catholic country – so many women opt to have their tubes tied.) And like the entire world, poor women are going out and making the money to support the family – who has time for babies? Certainly not Brazilian women – a full quarter of Cariocas (Rio residents) still live in abject poverty.

But let’s get back to that volleyball game. After years of listening to American guys make fun of girls’ sports, it was genuinely exciting to see men actually interested in women’s sports. And when I remember Rio, I will block out the image of women selling their bodies street side and instead concentrate on the fact that in Brazil, women can be President, love their bodies and command respect by playing sports. C’mon America – catch up.


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Sharing the wealth

kid at desk

I’ve decided that my tipping point is one month. After one month of living out of a suitcase, travel officially becomes boring and my Seattle montage starts playing in my head: A run along Queen Anne’s hilltop, an Americano with half and half at Cafe Fiore, and a simple, homemade green salad while sitting out on my back deck in the sun. Yes.

I’m also really looking forward to new topics of conversation. How to get your child (or grandchild, or niece) into a ‘decent’ school consumes the thoughts of everyone in London. I am not being hyperbolic. The disparity between schools is terrifying. Many of our close friends, who happen to be atheists, attend church every Sunday, espousing a fervent belief in God, simply to get into the local (C of E or Catholic) school – and not just the year before the child is due to enter Reception (our Kindergarten). We are talking THREE YEARS of church attendance to get your kid into a state-run school.

Other friends and family members are lucky enough to be able to afford private school, but it doesn’t end with money. For my own son to attend the school his father attended, he would have had to take AN EXAM at age three to get into Reception, and another at 7 to secure a place in the junior school and another at age 11 to secure a place in the senior school – all for the bargain price of £12,000 a year.

Truly, it is a tragedy for parents here, which is why they must verbally process it at every social occasion. You can see the dilemma etched into the worry lines on their faces. Do you save and scrimp for private school, only for your child to become a toffee-nosed arse, or tossed out for poor exam results at age 11? Or do you attend church for three years to get into the free school, regardless of whether or not you believe? The alternative is too hideous to contemplate: sending your child to a failing school in a bad area where they are certain to receive a terrible education and probably end up robbing grannies after school. Of course, working class, poor people have no option at all, but it isn’t really cool to mention that.

It is tempting to feel rather smug on my way home today – George is certain to get into his local school, which is 400 meters away. If he doesn’t, there are two others in our neighborhood that are equally well-respected. That’s it. End of story. Our only complaint is that there is not a lot of green space. At our free, amazing school down the road.

But inequities in education obviously exist in America as well. Just six miles away, in the same county we pay our taxes in, school choices are starkly different to my own.  And I wish I could just carry on with my life, appreciating the amazing fortune afforded me by my parents and my own hard work. The fact that so many of us are able to ignore the inequities is perhaps the reason why they continue. But what do we do?

For a start, I think we should mimic Portland, OR (minus the organic hippie beard thing). They decided last year to pool one-third of all PTA contributions and re-distribute the money to failing schools. And since schools such as Coe Elementary (where George will go) raise almost $200,000 a year in parent contributions and schools down the road raise virtually none, this seems a place to start. I would love to give to my child’s school knowing it might also benefit other children whose parents are less able to support their local school. (This is disregarding the fact that WA state schools are hideously underfunded to the point of a Supreme Court order – that is a whole separate issue. Truly, parents should just stop topping up funding for schools so the government will cover the bill as it should, but as a representative parent, I am certainly not willing to prove a point with my child’s life prospects.)

I’ve been reading Diane Ravitch’s blog as well as Save Seattle Schools, a community forum. Both offer perspectives on the issue, but few real solutions. Can anyone offer other reading suggestions?

Next Tuesday, I will be en route to my fourth continent in the span of four weeks: Australia. I will be visiting two friends – one in Melbourne and one in Perth. Ah, the benefits of a year off teaching – cheap travel during term time!


Taking personal responsibility for each other


Maggie Thatcher in one of her many ‘striking’ hats. (Image from

I’m not sure what the mood is like back home, but it has been fascinating being in London in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s death. Everyone has something to say about her – from a friend whose grandfather and father went ‘down the pit’ but still respects her to friends who say things like ‘she really sorted this country out’ to people who truly think she was the devil incarnate. The media here has, of course, gone WAY over the top – every paper in the country is desperately trying to out-milk every fact you could ever want to know about Maggie (or Mrs. T as some call her – not sure if this is flatteringly polite or a way of belittling her by marking her as some nameless married woman). Just this past Sunday, Hilary Alexander of the Daily Telegraph told me that Thatcher “owned a striking array of hats.” The word ‘Boadicea’ has been used to describe her upwards of 500 times. Compelling stuff, I tell you.

My personal viewpoint? Well, I like any woman who is getting it done the way she wants it done. So yes, I think she was rather amazing. I’d really like to see what she would do with the political stalemate in America, were she in power right now. And would teachers be the new coal miners, and would she be bessie mates with Michelle Rhee?

Which brings me to today’s point (I know, you were starting to despair). I haven’t read many American reactions to her death, but in my concerted effort to canvass a variety of news sources, I stumbled upon a piece from Steve Tobak on FOXBusiness called “America Needs a Margaret Thatcher” which unsurprisingly espouses her virtue in employing the much over-worked phrase ‘personal responsibility.’ What gets me about this phrase is that, yes, of course, I wish more of us would take responsibility for our own decisions. I wish people ate and exercised better so our health care costs would go down. I wish gun owners would take responsibility for America’s absurd gun violence. I wish everyone driving in America would pass in the #$%*% left lane and then move the hell over.

But – and this is an important but – I also wish that everyone had the fortune to be born with a high-functioning brain and a family who fed them well enough and loved them well enough to enable all individuals to take personal responsibility for themselves. This is, unfortunately, not the case.

So let’s take the case of Freddie (as I will call him here), who I taught two years ago as a senior in high school. This boy was, quite simply, not given the gift of academic intelligence, though socially he was off the charts. He was always making the class laugh – mainly at his expense, because he realized he was not understanding a damn thing I said. He also had a string of girls hanging on his every word. But this kid could not write a sentence to save his life. He could just barely read. Freddie was quite good at (American) football, so he received special support throughout high school. He managed to graduate (with LOTS of mandated help from me as well, I might add) and was given a scholarship to play football at college as well as a new support teacher there as well. Problem was, he still could not write a sentence.  And here’s where it starts to unravel.

End of story, Freddie dropped out because he couldn’t cope with the workload. And having no other path to follow, he is now living at home and unemployed. The part of me who loves the idea of personal responsibility shouts out, ‘We gave him too much support! He should have been allowed to fail as a child!’ Part of me also thinks he could get a minimum wage job and work up from there. But it’s just not that easy. Freddie’s mother told him right in front of me he would amount to nothing. And Freddie confided in me, many times, that he was the stupidest, most worthless human being on the planet. And in a school system that only values academic success, what other message could he receive?

What would Maggie have made of Freddie? According to liberal thinkers here, she would have allowed him to rot and die. I can’t really speculate, because I was 14 when she was kicked out by her own cabinet, but here’s what I would have liked to see happen for Freddie.

I would have liked to have the chance to direct Freddie towards a vocational course – one that might take advantage of his charm and sociability. I would have liked to set him up with a viable educational and/or career alternative that did not make him feel terrible about himself. I would not have buoyed up his hopes with a football scholarship (he wasn’t THAT good) and I would not have allowed him to graduate from high school without mastering the art of writing a sentence.

What it boils down to is this: People who are gifted with money or brains must take responsibility for people who are not born with the gifts to better themselves. It is all well and good discussing how we should take responsibility for our choices, but the people saying these things have possibly never even met someone who has not had a fair shake from the very start of life. The obstacles they have to overcome are, in some cases, truly insurmountable. Which is why our society creates safety nets (and should consider creating a few more).

The fact that anyone deplores such nets illustrates that they are probably from a privileged upbringing. Am I wrong? Do tell.

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Finally, proof that the SAT is asinine

One of the biggest gifts I was given at the beginning of my senior year in high school was the worst SAT score out of my entire group of friends. It wasn’t a gift at the time, of course – while my friends applied to private liberal arts schools on the east coast, I applied to ASU (no disrespect to the Sun Devils, of course).

The reason I now consider it a gift is that it put me on the defensive when I entered college. After a high school career spent socializing and doing sports, I earned a 4.0 in my first semester of college. But more than that, I have lived my life since then with the full knowledge that on the test given to all high school students, I was designated sub par. I will never think of myself as clever. And that means I will always feel the need to prove myself.

So when I read the Paul Tough’s fascinating book, How Children Succeed, I was thrilled to note that the reason I flew through college and went onto graduate school has to do, in large part, with my character. I do well because I am determined, resilient, and full of something psychologists call ‘grit.’ And according to Tough, this also has to do, in large part, with how well my parents loved me (Thanks, Mom!).

how children succeed

Some have categorized the book as a parenting manual, though I found it much more tailored to teachers (as I would, I suppose). My favorite part, about how to get kids to graduate from college, is when Tough analyzes the book, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities by William G. Bowen, Matthew Chingos and Michael S. McPherson. Tough summarizes the authors’ findings like this: “…the most accurate predictor of whether a student would successfully complete college was not his or her score on the SAT or the ACT…the far better predictor of college completion was a student’s high-school GPA. (For my English readership, a GPA stands for Grade Point Average, and teachers award these scores to students throughout their school career.) It turns out that working hard in high school translates to success in later life – excellent news for all of my former students who were not necessarily the brightest but always did the work.

British reviews of How Children Succeed made me giggle a bit. One, in particular, talked about how British schools are all about teaching character, indicating that perhaps the UK need learn no lessons on this front. I guess the reviewer hasn’t been to the school in London I used to teach at. When I tell people in America I taught in England, they are invariably picturing Hogwarts: They say things like, ‘Wow! I bet that was amazing!’ It was anything but. In fact, I was regularly robbed, sworn at, threatened with violence, and actually hit.

And here’s why. The concept of the GPA is one aspect of American schooling that I wish the UK would adopt (and since I am currently writing this from London, it seems apt to discuss it here). The primary reason that teaching in the UK is so much harder is because students have so few reasons to value their teacher. Other than the knowledge teachers impart (which is now quite easily available online), they have little direct impact on their students’ futures. In America, the GPA means that teachers are integral to a student’s chances of going to college. Didn’t do your homework? That zero counts! My assessment of a student’s work ethic means something. To be fair, the UK is doing many things very well, and I plan to devote another whole post to what Americans can learn from the UK system. Oh, how I wish I could have taken A-levels!

sat test

Perhaps the SAT test is why I still detest pencils.

How Children Succeed is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in child psychology, education and, yes, parenting. It also vindicated many of my most cherished beliefs: Good parenting is more important to a child’s future success in school than good teaching. Character counts for more in life than intelligence. And the SAT test is asinine. Truly, if there is one good thing I could do in this world, it would be to spend my life eradicating this test for future generations.

By the way, Paul Tough will be speaking this Friday, April 5th,  at the Westin in Seattle. I will not be in attendance because I will be in Brazil, which is also why I won’t be posting again until the following Tuesday. Until then, ate logo!