The Poky Little Pundit

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Don’t ever dig holes under fences


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.



In the dark


I must admit, the PLP is feeling a bit down. A little blue. A little like the dregs at the bottom of my coffee cup. So small and brown and sad. It could be the astounding amount of cheese dip I consumed while watching the Super Bowl, or the weather in Seattle which, for the first time in six years, is finally plunging me headlong into utter despair. There’s a great line from a Patty Griffin song that goes like this: “I need a little place in the sun sometimes or I think I will die.” Yes.

I have to decide, like SOON, whether or not I am returning to teaching. So I am going to start today with a rather blunt statement: If taxpayers could find it within themselves to value education and therefore pay me a competitive wage, I would return to teaching with open arms. This does not make me a bad person (not for this reason anyway). In the NYT this Sunday, the infamous Michelle Rhee, whom I admire not for her ideas necessarily but for her drive to change things, said, “Teachers have integrity. And if money was the motivating factor, they wouldn’t be in education” (Click here for the whole thing).

Um, okay. I get this is meant to be a compliment, but truly, how dare anyone intimate that integrity will pay my bills? That teachers are morally above earning money for a job well done? Logic has never been my strong suit, which is how I can say I am seriously considering returning. What is it about teaching that draws so many thousands of quite talented people to an arguably dead end job? It can’t be simply the summer holidays (though that is significant, I admit.) The negatives are obvious, such as low wages, an inflexible schedule, high levels of stress, an overly emotional and changeable clientele, and a lack of respect on a nationwide level. But positives might outweigh all of these things: Spending the day with colleagues who argue about themes in Heart of Darkness over microwaved Amy’s meals; teenagers, whose energy and optimism are catching; reading and analyzing books all day; never, ever, ever being bored. What do you think, darling readers? Should I return?

This week, I met up with Progressive Majority WA director Noel Frame, who I previously mentioned was a candidate for the state legislature in my own 36th district. It still amazes me that knowledgeable people are willing to sit down with me and educate me on the political system for free. Just because they care. How awesome is that? People like Noel motivate me to carry on when my ignorance about politics threatens to shove me back to my past state of apathy.

She has also helped me to shape my goal for the week, which is to tune into – basically a way to keep abreast of what is happening in Olympia from the coziness of your living room sofa. I plan on tuning into the 15 minute Legislative Review, shown Monday through Thursday online. I’m particularly interested today to hear the outcome of SB 1457, regarding family and medical leave and SJM 8002, about campaign financing. Check it out tonight with me!


Progressing towards a goal

I gotta say, even at the risk of sounding bombastic, I am FIRED UP after hearing President Obama’s inauguration speech. One phrase in particular popped out at me: “Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” ACTION! So why is it that simply declaring an interest in improvement via our country’s political process seems to get people all hot under the collar? Why does it feel audacious to even say I am considering it?

President Barack Obama: I just love this guy.  Photo: REUTERS/White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama: I just love this guy! 
Photo: REUTERS/White House/Pete Souza

I spent this past Saturday at a training day for Progressive Majority, a group that helps prepare potential candidates wishing to run for office. Just getting there was half the battle: I had to rely on two grandmas to take care of 3-year-old George and my husband, who recently had ACL surgery. I could have gone skiing. I could have just sat in a cafe and read a book. But no. Sometimes I wonder what it is inside me that is never able to just settle and rest. And sometimes I wish I could just cut that part out.

So thirty other individuals like myself also spent a whole Saturday in a cold Carpenter’s Hall in Renton in order to understand how one goes from caring about issues to legislating them. And what made me laugh as soon as I arrived is that they all looked like teachers: politely and earnestly dressed, mainly middle-aged, diverse in both gender and ethnicity. And it was a lot like a typical staff meeting: lots of acronyms, an assumed knowledge base and low quality of snacks. I mention snacks because it is the main reason why I am jealous of my friends who work in corporate America. I love good snacks. And I have never worked in a job where snacks are subsidized. I have spent an embarrassing amount of time thinking about how much better teaching would be if we only had good snacks.

progressive majority pic 2

A fine-looking group of political hopefuls (I’m at the front right with the ginger hair).
Photo: Noel Frame

I was actually really excited to meet one of the day’s speakers, Noel Frame. She ran this past November for the 36th District, and despite securing the vote of the PLP early on, she lost. I know – shocking. She is an active proponent for quality education for all WA state children. She primarily spoke about the necessity and art of fundraising, which made me want to throw a toddler-style tantrum.

Anyone who has ever even thought about going into politics knows it is all about fundraising. Like, ALL about fundraising. And as a person who identifies with wallflowers and was known for bringing books to frat parties in college, the idea of approaching anyone – much less strangers – for money makes me literally shudder. It brings out this deep-seated, youngest-child rebellious feeling in me, like I am going to be different. I’ll be the first candidate ever to win without spending money. It physically pains me that America wastes such a vast quantity of money on elections.

But I have to think about it in a different way. I have to think about the fact that someone is going to raise that money, and possibly further an agenda that I do not believe is the right course for our state or country. And if it isn’t me, who is it? To whom am I entrusting with my child’s future?

To some extent, I am putting the cart before the horse – because I still have no idea what I should run for. I think there should be an app where someone could take their primary interest and skill set (say, me and education), show what they are qualified for and what’s available when, and then how you actually get there. My generation loves apps. Our government needs to get on the app bandwagon. If any of my charming readers happen to know where I could find this information, I’d love to hear about it. I’ll end by quoting our president one more time: “It is our generation’s task to carry on what [our] pioneers began.”

C’mon everyone! Get fired up!

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The First Amendment Part 1: The Problem

Most of you are probably blissfully unaware that 25 years ago, on January 13, 1988, students in public high schools across the country were quietly deprived of the full extent of their First Amendment right. The Supreme Court’s Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision allowed school administrators to censor speech they consider to be “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” The previous standard, set by Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, only allowed censorship if speech caused a ‘material and substantial disruption.’ Simply put, the Hazelwood standard gives administrators significant control over what young people are able to say, because just about anything can be twisted to fit a ‘pedagogical goal.’ I know this, because for four of my six years’ teaching in America, the Hazelwood standard – and a conservative principal – made my life a daily challenge.


How is this relevant to my life? you may be thinking. Well, it may not be, if you don’t care about protecting an individual’s freedom of speech. In which case, you can go back to North Korea and stay there. But if you are still reading, allow me to convince you that the rights we uphold for our young people – however small they may seem – are vitally important to a thriving, independently-minded nation.

Today commences Part 1 of 2 posts about one way we can defend the right to speak and write freely for all citizens. And it all started last Friday when I met up with a very wise friend of mine – a fellow Eastern Washingtonian with a giant smile and a deeply rooted knowledge of local politics.

He cemented my theory that the way for me to make the biggest difference is by capitalizing on my current knowledge base. Meaning education. Schools. We all know they need help, but how? The question is so complicated and difficult that most of us just keep ours head down, send our kids to school and hope they don’t end up as meth addicts.

He had many excellent ideas – all of which made me think: Yes! Let’s do that! Now! But then he explained to me how one actually goes about making those changes and everything went a bit fuzzy. Why is it so hard in our country to make good and necessary changes quickly? One idea, involving the sinking ship my son will soon board that is Seattle Public Schools, particularly interested me: Divide up the district into north, east, south and west, but make a statute requiring levy equalization (meaning all schools get the same amount of money). This makes just absolute perfect sense to me. It is so absurdly unfair that some schools have more money than others simply because of the price of houses in the neighborhood. But for this to happen, we need to change an entire population’s thought process.

Which brings me back to First Amendment rights for young people – again, fighting the fight that I can fight, if you follow me. My greatest joy in teaching has also been my greatest misery: the school paper. I advised The Barque, a student newspaper, for six years. Now to most of you in the ‘real world,’ running a school newspaper probably sounds like some cheesy after-school club. But it is more like a full-time job. School papers must fund themselves – like any other publication – with ads from businesses in order to stay solvent. And though only one issue a month is produced, the staff are 30 teenagers with six other classes, after-school sports and a social life, so story-writing, editing and laying out the paper must take place in the four hours available each week in class. Except it doesn’t. It gets done after school. Like, for hours upon hours after school. Teachers who take on this behemoth are paid an additional stipend, which roughly works out to be $3 an hour.

Many of you might be (rightly) thinking: Why would anyone willingly take this on? Frankly, teaching the same stuff, year after year, is boring. And making a newspaper is decidedly not. At my school, it also attracts some of the most dynamic, intelligent kids the school has to offer, so you have the added benefit of spending time with people who will likely be future leaders in our communities. People going to schools like Brown or Dartmouth. People who also like to stir shit up and make stuff better. My kind of people.

The Barque class

Gold-Medalist award-winning student journalists on The Barque (and me).

But it was the very dynamic qualities of these students that so challenged our now-departed conservative principal. In one memorable issue, my students wanted to write stories about drugs in our school – a real problem that impacted their daily lives. This was not to be. Under the Hazelwood ruling, the principal could easily justify limiting talk of drugs at school as ‘reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical goals.’ So an excellent story, in which an anonymous drug dealer at school spoke candidly of their experience dealing at school, was censored. If our district or school chose not to invoke Hazelwood, or if our school was in Oregon, this story would have run. Students and parents might have read this article and productive conversations about drugs at school might have commenced.

So what can be done? Stay tuned next Tuesday for The First Amendment Part 2: The solution.

In other PLP news, I faxed in my 15-page questionnaire for Progressive Majority last week, which basically asked me, ‘Do you agree with us?’ in 50 different ways. And apart from a few ideas, I did. We’ll see if I am ‘approved.’

I’ve also decided to get involved in YouthCare, an organization supporting Seattle’s homeless teenagers, after speaking to a friend who volunteers with them. It seems like an ideal fit as I can hopefully lend my English teaching skills to kids trying to pass their GED or working on letters to get jobs. I have to attend a volunteer initiation scheduled in late February before I can start, but in the meantime, I am looking for things to donate from my own home, such as sleeping bags, hooded sweatshirts and towels. Clean out those closets and perhaps I will see you there!


Choosing to trust

I know, I’m two days late. Toddlers and jobs and house guests and the holidays will do that. Moving swiftly on…

One of my favorite characters is Lloyd Dobler from the movie, Say Anything. He is famous to my fellow 30 somethings for the boombox scene – but to me, the most memorable part of the film is his career speech: “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.” (Yes, it’s worth quoting in its entirety.)

The seminal romantic image of my generation. A boom box and hope.

His reasoning here is why I initially became a teacher. I wanted to opt out, in a way, of the unpleasant realities of a capitalist culture. But if anything, teaching thrust me into the very root of its problems. Public school teaching is unique. Few professions allow adults to experience such a broad cross-section of present-day society. It is unlikely that, say, Boeing or Microsoft employees meet a wide variety of people on the job. My students have comprised a Presidential scholar, an ethnic Albanian who witnessed the brutal murder of his entire family, a kid who pulled off a perfect SAT score, a 12 year old who beat another student to death with a baseball bat, and a kid whose parents own a $7 million house.

I have also taught many students with various forms and in various stages of mental illness. Teachers know students who are already so angry that we cannot reach them. We know teenagers whose eyes look like empty black holes. We see students whose mental illness goes unrecognized by their mentally ill parents. We send these kids out into the world, knowing they do not have the skills necessary to survive emotionally in our society. But what can we do? What recourse do we have?

We all want to know: How do we make sense of what happened at Sandy Hook? And more importantly, how do we learn from it? It is horrifying to me that many people – from close friends to ex-students to political leaders – have suggested that we arm our teachers. I find this kind of reasoning simply incomprehensible. On a practical level, it is almost amusing. Just last year, for the first time in my career, I was given a cupboard for my bag and coat. (Previously, I slung personal items over the back of my chair.) So, firstly, where in heck could we store this gun, and how could we possibly access it quickly enough? How would we would train teachers to respond when we do not even have mandatory First Aid or CPR training? How do we fund the gun and the training when many of us already pay out of our own pockets for basic classroom supplies? Are people advocating this idea ready to pay the taxes necessary to make this actually work? It is wrong thinking on a level so major that I cannot find a way into these people’s heads. So, by the way, is the argument that by God’s grace, more children were not hurt. Where does one even start with the flaws in this sort of logic? And if you actually think this, how could you believe in such a God?


Michael DeBell is the director of the Seattle School Board.

I believe we have a fundamental choice to view everyone with either suspicion or trust. The statistics support people like me who trust that most of us – even those with mental illness – are not going to shoot each other. The people bragging online about how they would have ‘blown the head off that bastard,’ to quote one friend, are inherently suspicious of their fellow humans. Personally, I would rather die than live that way. The vast majority of the students I have taught are now competent, caring adults who have truly enriched my life. Of the remainder, one might be a serial killer. And I am willing to take my chances even on her.

Back to ‘getting involved,’ though. This week has been excellent for the PLP. Reuven Carlyle, a representative for my district, put me in touch with a wonderful woman very involved in Seattle Public Schools. We chatted about ways to make changes at local schools, and she has connected me with others also hoping to improve local schools. One way is by attending a meeting, held every third Saturday at Cafe Appassionato in Magnolia, hosted by Seattle School Board Director Michael DeBell. I’ll be there in January.


I also received a phone call this morning from Progressive Majority, who support potential candidates in their bid for office. I am going through an initial screening to see whether or not I am a viable candidate, so we spoke about my previous leadership experience, my political views, and, for lack of a better word, my overall life philosophy. I hope I didn’t sound like an idiot – the phone call woke me up. Next comes a questionnaire and some fun meetings in January so I can start understanding the process of running for office. I will be reporting whatever I discover! As next Tuesday is Christmas, I will not be posting again until January 1st. Hug your family tight! Love, the PLP.

me and G professional photo