The Poky Little Pundit


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“We have a civic obligation to support free public education for all.” – Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch bookAfter four days with no voice and a night spent coughing so hard that tears flew spontaneously from my eyes, I am taking a day off. And right now, it is sunny, and so the world is good. I am staring in utter awe at the hot butter sunshine, knowing that in just minutes, it will pull on its hated Autumn-grey sweater.

It has been a month now since my return to teaching – hence the lack of posting. I’d love to report how happy I am to be back – but working 10 hour days for $3000 a month continues to be somewhat of a drag. I can hear some of you thinking, ‘Well, that’s better than minimum wage, isn’t it? She should be grateful!’ And I am grateful to be employed – we all should be – but my myriad degrees (okay, there’s only three) and 12 years of experience balk at my workload relative to my salary.

Luckily, I am not the only one feeling fired up about education: Last Thursday, I went to hear Diane Ravitch speak at UW about her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. She is a tiny, fiery woman whose commanding rhetoric boomed through Kane Hall. She mentioned many ‘hoaxes’ that our media propagates – one being that American education is failing. She quickly proves how untrue this is with actual evidence – for example, high school graduation rates are at their highest point in history. Several other tidbits popped out at me (oh and by the way, these are called titbits in England, which cracks me up):

  • Test scores measure “who is in the class” – and no amount of merit pay is going to increase these test scores if all other variables stay the same
  • Teachers are not, in fact, “hiding their best lessons” in a bid to earn more money
  • America leads the world in industrialized poverty – which is the probable cause of most of our education woes
  • Standardized tests reflect opportunity – not the ability to learn
  • “Charter schools are skimming off the easiest to educate.” Totally!
  • Providing better pre-natal and early childhood care are critical in fixing our public school system
  • Reducing class size has proven benefits (And here, I want to segue briefly to state that one of my current AP Literature classes has 34 souls. In England, the equivalent class had EIGHT.)

It was lovely to walk through my former campus again, and sit back and learn for a change instead of grading papers and being ever the arbiter. Ravitch was an excellent speaker and is an excellent educator – I encourage you to read her book. Read Jonathan Kozol’s review for the NYT here.

In terms of politics – no, I have nothing to say about the shutdown that hasn’t already been said in eight different ways since last night. I’d like to focus instead on some of the amazing local candidates relying on our support this November. It turns out that part of being a Precinct Committee Officer for the 36th District Democrats involves receiving phone calls on my cell from candidates – I have voice messages from both school board candidate Suzanne Dale Estey and Port Commissioner John Creighton! I’d love to endorse them here, but I am still in the evidence-gathering phase of my voting process – I hope you are too. More on this is still to come as I learn about the candidates.

Now for a hot bath, some soup and some Vick’s VapoRub…stay healthy, dear reader!


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Vote on August 6th!

Me and George

George and me about to canvass the neighborhood. (This is an excellent example of my husband’s photography skills. Luckily, he is good at many other things).

Though I have just one month remaining of novel-writing time before teaching swoops down and renders my other life pursuits obsolete, I wanted to dash off a quick post urging everyone to vote. The primaries are on August 6 – which means you need to get your ballot in the mail like NOW.

As the new resident PCO, or Precinct Committee Officer, for section 1761 of the 36th District, I have been spending time this past week knocking on neighbors’ doors and handing them pamphlets prepared by the 36th District Democrats with candidate endorsements. I brought George on my first foray as my little blonde talisman – nothing like a cute four-year-old to provide a distraction from the awkwardness of knocking on a stranger’s door. Sure enough, people were eager to open the door and chat. It is a pretty easy message to sell – here’s some information, and please vote. Even this sales-wary neophyte can handle that.

I also wanted to mention an excellent new economic agenda driven by Nancy Pelosi and fellow House Democrats. It was brought to my attention by an old student currently working in Washington, D.C. It is called “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds: An Economic Agenda for Women and Families.” Susan Stamberg discussed the agenda with Nancy Pelosi just a few days ago on NPR, and it is well worth a listen. Considering the House is currently Republican, critics assume it doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell – ironic, no? Isn’t the GOP all about ‘family values?’ These are still things my peon brain has yet to grasp in the world of politics.

That’s all for today – this PCO stuff is rather time consuming, and I have more door knocking (and novel-writing) to get done. Feel free to write in and post absurd quotations from the Voter’s Pamphlet. My favorites this time round include a typo in the ‘occupation’ line (he’s an accountantt, apparently), a guy who thinks ‘life is just too short’ so Seattle should be more fun, and a guy whose favorite job is raising his son to be a ‘mighty man of God.’ Love it.

Now go vote!


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Laboring for some kind of fruit

my bean plant

My own garden! This is my first ever attempt to grow beans from seeds. Crossed fingers (or vines).

The past few weeks, I have been saying, to anyone willing to listen, that the next purchase I make will be a condo with no garden. It is absurd, I know, to complain about owning a home. Talk about first world problems. But having a garden is just totally, thoroughly exhausting. And like many exhausting things, also frustratingly worthwhile. Because after a day spent literally digging in the dirt, progress is visible. You have created and sustained life.

I feel the same way, to an extent, about trying to get involved in politics. There is no end to unfamiliar terms, to limits on time and resources, to the careful tending of raw material to yield a tiny bit of beauty or sustenance. And like gardening, there is such a host of people who know so much more than you that it is easy to just think, ‘I give up! Give me some cement and a cocktail!’ A large part of me also laughs at myself for the suburban middle-class-ness of both pursuits.

But I continue to hunger for that one, delicious plant that pops out of the dark earth, fecund with life. I’ve planted a few more this week: I applied to be a PCO for the 36th District Democrats. A PCO, or Precinct Committee Officer, is a person who knocks on doors in the leadup to elections and provides materials on endorsed candidates. Sounds like a great idea.

I also met up with Kirkland City Council member Shelley Kloba, who recently entered the political arena after many years of experience in the PTA. She was not only generous with her time but also with her ideas about how I can use my unique talents to become a part of the change-making institutions in our state. She defines herself as a child advocate and was down to earth, warm and obviously dedicated to serving her community – what a role model!

Finally, I am applying to be a member of the board of New Beginnings, an amazing Seattle organization committed to ending domestic violence. I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening than helping women and children in need.

But back to that garden: I have found, as many gardeners have before me, that one can spend an inordinate amount of money on stuff that you stick in dirt. Especially if you are impatient, or lazy, or an unfortunate combination of the two. I was hoping that, by merely expressing an interest in politics and scattering seeds, things would come my way. But no. I have to pick out the right seeds. I have to check the light and have good-quality soil. I have to water them. I have to weed things out. I have to water them again.

Right now, I’m just sowing seeds. And as everyone knows who has grown something from seed, it takes time and it’s kinda boring to watch. So I am taking time this summer to allow my tiny political plants to grow without witness. And, well, I also have a novel that needs finished by September 3 (both my birthday and the first day of school), and blogging is a fantastic way to procrastinate.

So until then, unless something momentous occurs, I am signing off. May all of you pursue goals this summer that will bear fruit!

Love, The Poky Little Pundit


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Don’t ever dig holes under fences

thepokylittlepuppy

Recently a friend asked me about the title of this blog – I naively assumed everyone would get the title without me explaining. Isn’t everyone’s favorite childhood book The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey? Apparently not.

So, for those of you who don’t already know, I stole part of my blog title from the aforementioned text. And it is basically about an independent, adventurous puppy who disobeys his mother and eats lots of desserts. At least that is my childhood memory of it. In actuality, it is about accepting the consequences of our bad decisions and facing up to our responsibilities.

Which is essentially what I am trying to do here with this blog. Face up to being something other than a self-serving ignoramus who complains about ‘the man’ while leaving all the decision-making up to him. Especially when I should be making that man a woman. (Ha ha.)

On that note, last week was Filing Week – when candidates register to run for stuff in WA state for the August 6 primary election. I spent a bit of time on the King County website, going as far as registering to see what I could possibly run for. The obvious choice is the unpaid School Board position – others include City Council or Commissioner, and I don’t think one should run for an office one has to Google in order to understand it. Michael DeBell is vacating his seat on the school board (that’s my district) and three candidates have filed to run for his position. I have not, because I simply do not feel qualified. (Here’s a list of all candidates who have filed, if you are curious.)

So what does it take to become qualified? Why aren’t there little ‘starter’ positions for people who want to ease their way into politics? Teaching involves a great deal of politicking, but truly I should not be making large decisions on behalf of the people of Seattle – I’m still deciding myself on important issues in education, such as teachers’ unions.

Which brings us to Timothy Noah’s article, “The 1 Perfect Are Only Half the Problem.” Firstly, how lovely to read an article by a writer whose bias was not immediately apparent. Secondly, I had no idea he was going to be talking about labor unions until the very end of the article. Basically, he thinks labor unions are a great way to fix middle class economic woes. And while my socialistic leanings predispose me towards loving unions, I don’t.

I want to be clear, though (before my colleagues think I am crazy, and Progressive Majority kicks me off the farm team): I am not anti-union. The NEA and the WEA (the National and Washington Education Association respectively) are integral to supporting teachers. But I do think there needs to be serious reform, including the right for teachers to choose how their union dues are spent – especially since in WA state, we are forced to join them. (I’m still deciding on the right-to-work debate – for the moment, forced unionization seems necessary. Read more about a recent right-to-work debate regarding Boeing here.) Perhaps a trifle petty, but if I ran the teachers’ unions, the first thing I would cut is the eight pieces of propaganda that arrive at my doorstep every day. Seriously? A group of educators made this decision?

One thing I will do in September, when I step warily back into the public education sector, is become involved in the Washington Education Association – boring, but necessary in terms of understanding how unions function. In the meantime, read up on the candidates who have filed – a brave step by many quite amazing individuals! I thought by now the path into politics might become more clear; alas, the murkiness continues unabated. If only I could cut under the fence and still get the dessert, just like my favorite poky puppy.


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Taking personal responsibility for each other

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

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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Out of the mouths of babes

I have learned a few rather terrifying facts about myself after teaching for 12 years: I tolerate differences in my students much better than I tolerate differences in adults; I remember their names better than I remember adults’ names (much to my husband’s eternal embarrassment); I am more willing to listen to them, and less willing to judge. In fact, I think I am the opposite to most rational adults. I haven’t really gotten to the root of this, but I suspect it is because they are so guileless (or I assume them to be).

Case in point: I have very few republican friends. But I have LOTS of republican students, many of whom I greatly admire and actually enjoy spending time with. So I thought – who better to talk about bridging our nation’s political gap with than two of the finest brains of our next generation (who also happen to be republicans)?

I have known Julia and Emily, who are both seniors in high school, for three years. I have taught and advised them on  the school newspaper and literary magazine. Both are incredibly high-achieving in academics and sports and both are respected and admired in the school community. Teachers like them because they are respectful yet lively in discussion. I like them because they don’t take crap from anyone – a rare trait among the girls at this school.

Both also find our increasing political polarization as frustrating as I do. Below are Julia and Emily’s take on our current political climate – truly eye-opening reading for the over 30 set.

julia and emily

Two of WA state’s finest brains, posing in the beige corridors of their high school (Julia is on the left, Emily on the right). Thanks, ladies! I owe you.

What does it mean to be a young republican today?

Julia: “I’m not sure I would define myself strictly as a young republican, as there are some issues where I deviate from a party platform. For example, in the issues of gay marriage and abortion.”

Emily: “Well what does it mean to be a young democrat? It means different things to different people. I don’t think being a young republican is all that different from being a middle aged republican or an old republican. I think there’s an emphasis on fiscal responsibility and personal responsibility. I think younger republicans care less about social issues and more about things like the economy and not spending money we don’t have as a nation. Because at the end of the day what’s more important: that we made someone feel good about themselves because we pandered to them or that they have a job and can provide for themselves? I think being a young republican means sticking to your moral compass and understanding that you are responsible for you. Everyone has bad luck, everyone has days or weeks where nothing goes their way or where they have to do things that they don’t want to do. That’s life. It doesn’t get better by complaining about it or waiting for someone to fix the problem for you. The only person responsible for you is you.”

What frustrates you about friends who define themselves as democratic? 

Julia: “I’ve found that I am often stereotyped. For example, if I am pro Rob McKenna, my peers assume that I am homophobic. If I am openly patriotic by standing at attention at the pledge of allegiance, it’s assumed that I am a capitalist/imperialist who doesn’t care about the marginalized, the oppressed, or the poor. People who know I am a member of a mainstream christian church have also assumed that I am a bigoted pro-lifer. The tendency by my democrat friends to make superficial judgements about me is frustrating. The hostility towards opposing viewpoints contributes to polarization which takes place throughout the country today between republicans and democrats. It seems that there is a lack of intellectual curiosity and dilligence to engage in a meaningful exchange of thoughts with those who hold other viewpoints.”

Emily: “It depends on the subject. In terms of economy what frustrates me is the idea that we can spend money we don’t have. If you can’t do it in a household then why should you be able to do it in a government? Owing money isn’t a good thing, that’s not the way you want your budget to work. In terms of healthcare it’s their assumption that in a system more like Canada’s or the UK’s that it’s “free.” There is no such thing as “free” someone always pays for that somewhere. They may not pay money out of pocket as they go into the hospital, but they pay for it with (what I consider) obscenely high tax rates, with long wait lines, with rationing of care, with decreased innovation, and with older treatments and equipment. There a lots of people who work for the Canadian government who come down to Washington for their healthcare. I think that’s an indication of the system they’re in.”

Where do your beliefs come from, and how do you obtain your information?

Julia: “I come from an extremely diverse family. Our family gatherings include octegenarian grandparents who fled Hitler and Stalin’s occupation of their homes, several Bombay-born Generation Xers, card carrying union members, small business owners. In the religion department, we’ve got Eastern Orthodox, mainstream Protestants, both Roman and Greek Catholics, recovering fundamentalists, an atheist, and a few suspected agnostics. Probably what influenced me the most is the immigrant experience that underlies my family’s dynamics. With it, came a powerful work and education ethic. That energy was allowed to thrive in America. We were reared with an appreciation for American industriousness, ingenuity and independent spirit. That experience informs and inspires me.”

Emily: “Really where my beliefs come from are my values, my morals…I think it’s immoral to keep spending money we don’t have and kicking the can down the road, forcing our children and grandchildren to deal with our mistakes. I get my information from Fox News but I also get it from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and other news stations. I think it’s important to see how different sources portray different events. Discrepancies are often telling. I like listening to Dennis Miller sometimes. He’s extremely witty and Laura Ingraham is incredibly intelligent (shocker, intelligent Republicans exist). But of course I don’t only listen to one side. I don’t think entrenching yourself is ever a good idea. I may not agree with a lot of democrats, but it’s still good to listen.”

Will you become involved in politics in college? After college?

Emily: “I think that the most important form of political activism is keeping yourself informed and voting. You don’t need to go out and march the streets for your cause to believe in something passionately. This country and its form of government was established for an educated population. When you don’t stay informed or don’t understand what goes on around you, you open yourself up to exploitation. Maybe I’m cynical, but I truly believe that the more informed you are the more protected you are from people who would harm you (this isn’t necessarily physical harm, but it can be people who try to persuade you that safety is worth giving up your rights. According to Benjamin Franklin, that person would deserve neither).”

What advice can you give to parents hoping to raise politically active children?

Emily: “Educate them. Read to them. Let them form their own opinions. And don’t assume your opinion is the right one because it’s yours. And most importantly, teach them to respect the “opposing” side’s opinions. I have received more than enough insults because of my political beliefs. But that’s like insulting someone because of his or her religion or culture. If that’s not acceptable, why is it acceptable to have inter-party slurs? Not everyone who is a republican is a red neck and not everyone who’s a democrat is a hippie. That’s not the way the world works. I think teaching children to base their arguments in logic is also important. A lot of people argue based on what they ‘feel’ but that doesn’t make for intelligent discussion. Just because something ‘feels’ right doesn’t mean that it is.”


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Take candy from babies, dammit.

I can pinpoint the exact moment in my life when I actually cared about what was going on in local politics. (In national politics, that moment was Dubya, of course.) It was in the winter of 2010. Just a few days previously, I had filled in my bubbles, quite pleased with myself for performing my civic duties by voting on stuff. And then I heard on the radio that WA state had voted to repeal a tax on candy. I actually screamed at the DJ in my car, who thought it was just great that people could get cheaper candy while government-run programs suffered. The issue is long past now – thanks to voters, a Snickers bar is a whole 2 cents cheaper and my last class of seniors numbered 38.

Anyway, after a few days away this weekend with my son’s friends and their parents (yep, he’s three, and he has actual friends), I came home to my favorite little non-food-item treat wrapped in blue – the New York Times on Sunday. Inside was an op-ed by former Kraft Foods executive Michael Mudd called “How to Force Ethics on the Food Industry.” His first point of advice? Levy taxes on sugared beverages and other snack foods and candy. I screamed YES at the newspaper, but then I got to thinking: How do we change the thinking of people who will most likely not even pick up this newspaper?

TRK-CHD SUB PDP FULL

I ate this excuse for food more times than I care to admit as a child. Remember the bendy cheese, the salt you could lick off the cracker and the gumlike texture of the meat? Mmm.

I see the complexity, obviously – no one wants Uncle Sam peering over their meal, checking its contents. And everyone has eaten with that friend – the one who waits to see what you order (grilled cheese) and then chooses the quinoa-stuffed peppers with a small salad. Everyone wants autonomy over their choices – but what is the alternative? If our medical insurance rates are terrible because  people decide to literally eat and drink themselves into a hospital, shouldn’t we be able to limit the poison they dump into their bodies? When will we finally acknowledge that we are all on the same planet, and start acting accordingly? I keep thinking about the look on WA state Senator Karen Keiser’s face when we were speaking in Olympia – the unspeakable frustration of working with people day after day who disagree with you on such a fundamental level that it is impossible to even begin a conversation.

So many of us – myself included – feel truly despondent. Like there is no point in even trying to get in the game. We know the outcome. So how do we bridge the gap? How do we find a way to talk to each other? We are out there, reaching into the abyss of the Internet, looking for a way to connect, but ultimately finding ways to polarize.

This feeling of helplessness also makes me miss teaching. You see, teenagers haven’t quite decided about issues. They still really listen and, most importantly, they fight back. We are all so busy being polite that we have stopped talking. Can you remember the last time you discussed politics over dinner with friends? With co-workers? With your spouse? Sometimes, I feel like I have to check the political affiliations of those around me before speaking, lest I offend. It is the same with religion (which I think should just be called Philosophy).  I still can’t figure out why we don’t really talk about this – the one thing that means anything. Our purpose. Why we are here.

Politics is ultimately about how we want our world to work. It is inextricably tied to the fates of our children. Surely, we should all be very interested in this. Perhaps this is why I blog as well. I don’t like being impolite. I don’t like making people feel uncomfortable to their faces. But I guess I don’t mind doing it on a screen. I think taxing candy, soda and any other food that is processed all to shit to make schools or other worthwhile programs better is the greatest idea ever. Why don’t other people?

And where do we go from here?