Thursday, June 24, 2010

the power of place...

Magda Helmuth was very tall for a woman. Looming. She wore short, pin straight hair and had giant hands. She had a thick German accent and smelled like cabbage.  Her preschool room was neither inviting nor comfortable.  She was the antithesis of what a preschool teacher should be.  But my parents didn’t think so. They thought she was amazing and inspiring, and so I was sent to the Purple Dragon a few mornings a week for preschool.  I remember sitting in a circle and trying artichokes as a group. First of all, who brings artichokes to a group of four-year-olds and expects any good to come of it? And, why was it acceptable for Mrs. Helmuth to berate me in front of the class when I gagged on the tasteless leaf in my mouth? Perhaps it was because it was 1978 and that’s just how things were done. Perhaps because I needed an experience like that to shape where I would go, in teaching, in my parenting, and in my relations with others.  I knew even then that I didn’t want to ever, ever make someone feel the way she had made four-year-old me feel.

Here is where the irony comes in: I now teach in the very same classroom where that experience occurred.  While there is now a wall splitting what once was a giant room into two, and the tables and chairs might seem a bit smaller to me, I still remember that experience when I walk into my classroom at the beginning of each new school year.  That classroom might look very similar in composition to the one I attended 30 plus years ago – predominantly white and upper middle class – but the experience I intend to give the students is vastly different than the one I had.

I went on to attend schools in the Kansas City, Missouri district.  What were once known as “cluster schools” (Hartman, Hale Cook and Marlborough elementary) became “magnet schools”, and these fed into several local high schools. I attended Lincoln College Preparatory Academy.  My experience in the KCMO district was a good one, and my parents were active in the schools and in district politics as they chose to stay in the city rather than cross state lines in the “white flight” of the early 1980s.  I don’t feel like they sacrificed my education or my educational experience for their idea that public schools can and should work.  I also think it was brave and bold of them, and a handful of other parents that really stood by the system. I wish there were more parents from our Brookside/Plaza neighborhoods (myself included, honestly) who would be brave enough to do the same today.

As a student at Lincoln, I had friends who haled from all parts of the KC metro area:  Independence, Blue Springs, downtown, the West Bottoms, you name it.  The only sense of community was the community inside the school.  I couldn’t invite my friend Amanda to come over after school because it meant that she’d have to ride my school bus and then one of our parents would have to trek across town during rush hour to pick up or drop off.  I simply didn’t get a chance to know my peers the way that my friends who attended other, neighborhood schools did.  I often wonder how that might have changed my path.  I always felt a bit disconnected from school because the kids who did live near me were not the ones I would have chosen to associate with outside of school.  Plus, most of those kids knew way too much about me, from the girls who once formed the “I hate Kate” club on the playground during third grade recess, to the kids who knew my mom was having an affair with our minister.  I didn’t want my dirty laundry aired like that, and so my social community became the friends I made at dance class.  

I see such connections (and frustrations) between my experience in school all those years ago and where I currently stand in my teaching and in my life.  I am back living in the same south Brookside/Waldo neighborhood in which I grew up, and I believe that our sense of community is still very broken.  People will be quick to tell you how our neighborhood is full of local businesses and family owned establishments: we are proud of these things and it’s one of the main reasons I wanted to come back to the area.  But what happened to the indispensible tie between the community and the schools in a neighborhood?  In many ways those ties don’t exist in this area of Kansas City.  We might fool ourselves into thinking that they do, but the schools with the best “community” feel that way because they are church based, and the church is the core of “community” there.  The public school options are plentiful, yet, in my opinion have done less to welcome the people of this community than to alienate those of us who are interested in attending them.

When I brought this up to friends in conversation, I heard people throwing blame around.  Parents want to blame the school system as a whole; teachers want to blame the parents, students want to blame teachers…on and on.  When will we find a middle ground or some way to get past the blame game and begin to try something new?  My opinion on the system and my sense of community has been really put to the test in the past few months as we have struggled to figure out my daughter’s path to kindergarten.   I can honestly say that I understand how my parents must have felt when their friends, the parents of my friends, pulled their children from public schools to move to the suburbs.  

My thoughts keep returning to the proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” and I wonder, where is my village?  We have backed our villagers into corners, alienating them and have left them to fend for themselves in the most important task of raising children.  I often wonder how different my journey as a parent and as a teacher would look if we had the kind of community in our schools as I feel in my own small group of friends.  I don’t know what the answers are to these questions, but I must believe that I should be a part of the solution.

I consider the definition of my current “location” as physical, geographical and personal.  There are days when I find myself quite literally walking with my children down the same sidewalks I walked as a child, and yet I know the experience I am giving them is at once vaguely similar and entirely different than my own.  I am reminded of my own history each day I step foot into my preschool classroom.  I am reminded that I must do things differently than they were done for me.  I am reminded of all the ways I would like to make the journey different for a new group of children.  I feel in many ways like my location is geographically quite exactly where I started many years ago, and yet miles and miles away from where I intend to go.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

dancing to a fascinatin' rhythm of their own

What do sequins, French braids and lipstick have in common? No, not Vegas and Little House on the Prairie, silly…dance recitals!  When I was three, or somewhere near there, my parents bribed me into potty training with dance lessons.  I started dancing: tap, ballet…and with each successive June came the thrill of the dance recital.  Lights! Costumes! Stage makeup that would turn a seven year old into a street-walker! I danced for 16 years, and then taught dance for another decade after that.  Year after year, June after June, came the promise of more sequins, more hairspray and bobby pins, and more face time on the stages all over Kansas City for me.
Last night I attended my niece’s dance recital.  It was also the 60th (yes, SIXTIETH) recital for my former dance teacher. Sixty years. Imagine that. How many hundreds, if not thousands of little girls and boys that woman has made an impression on in six decades?  I digress.  I sat watching the show and it occurred to me that I should first apologize to my friends and family who had to endure the HOURS long performances of my yearly dance recitals.  There comes a point as a teacher where you should maybe consider not including every single dance you ever choreographed. I’m just saying, it could probably shorten the length of the recital by maybe three hours. 
Watching those girls on stage reminded me that there’s always a bossy one in every group. And it starts early. You know which one I mean: the one who looks at the little girl next to her who isn’t paying attention and pushes her or shakes her finger at her.  Oh, you just wait – she’s going to be the prom queen, the captain of the Cheerios. I don’t know why, but recitals bring social hierarchies to mind for me.  Also? If you are on stage in a sparkling get-up complete with a feathery headdress? You might want to consider your motivation. Really. I am totally all about adults dancing. It’s a great workout and I miss it so much that I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered going back. But dancing on stage next to teenagers in a gaudy costume? I just think it’s weird.
My niece Olivia was the bright shining star of the show. I know I’m biased, but that child has natural talent and it was honestly a joy to watch her.  She made all the other stuff tolerable and that is saying a lot.  A friend of mine suggested earlier today that the Pentagon ought to look into considering dance recitals as a form of torture, and I’m thinking she has a good point.  I’m off to write my congressman.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I'm still here.

I really am.  This week I started the Greater Kansas City Writing Project's summer institute.  When I'm not so darn tired, I will write about the GKCWP and all the amazing things they do. Until then, I just wanted to say hello from the trenches and assure you (were you wondering?) that I have been writing like a madwoman - and have had more inspiration in three days from these wonderful people than I've had in months. I can't wait to share...but not today!

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Tomorrow I turn 35.  So, thus far, I’ve outlived Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jesus. Not necessarily in that order, but probably so.  Today I was catching up on some blogs that I frequent, and one I love was linked to another – a blog where the writer asked women to submit letters to their 20 year old selves.  How intriguing this was to me – how fascinating (and scary)!  And it inspired me so much that I present you with this:
Dear 20-year-old Kate,
All that searching you’re doing right now?  The wondering who you really are and where you belong?  Get used to it.  Apparently it’s ingrained in who you are, and it’s something you’ll continue to do well beyond your angsty teens and twenties.  But, the worry that goes along with that searching? Good Lord, girl. Drop it and enjoy life. Grab it by the balls and don’t look back because one day, the worrying will envelope so much more than just YOU. 
The body that you look in the mirror and scoff at? It’s amazing. Wear the short dress and wear the sting bikini while you can.  That body will one day bear your children and become something much different, but right now? It’s hot.  Keep dancing as much as you can.  Don’t quit because some boy wants to spend more time with you and don’t give up the thought that you might someday dance in New York.  Stop telling yourself it’s not worth pursuing that dream.  Don't sell yourself short.
The boy who makes you crazy with emotions you can’t explain? One day you will vaguely remember why he made you feel that way.  Don’t sacrifice your plans for ANYONE…no matter how important the reason seems at the time. In the end, you will only have yourself, so whatever path you choose, make sure it’s something you’re happy with. Someday you will have daughters of your own and you will no doubt have to watch them go through these same emotions. When that happens, please try to remember how it felt to be 22; it could be the best gift you could ever give them. 
Wash your face more. Drink more water.  Don’t smoke so much.  Stop and enjoy the little moments more often. Don’t ever look back.
35-year-old Kate

Monday, June 7, 2010

seeing the sea...

Vacation is always such a weird thing.  You either love it or you hate it and you either really, really want to come home or, like me this time, you wish you could figure out a way to live at the beach, rather than in the ho-hum Midwest.  I know that soon enough I will be wrapped up in the day to day stuff again and I will not feel like this, but right now I’m having a hard time feeling good about being home.  I thought a lot this week about sitting down to write, I really did…but something always seemed more important, like watching the sun rise and then set over the ocean, or watching my eldest daughter learn how to swim (!!) or watching my children interact with their grandparents and their aunt and uncle in ways that just never happen when the hustle and bustle of daily life get in the way. Yes, those moments took precedence over writing, and I’m glad they did. 
I thought about writing about the drive over the bridge that connects Jekyll Island with Brunswick and St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, and how I literally get the shakes when I have to drive it alone.  And that the first night my in-laws were there, they tried to get over it only to find it was closed because someone had tried to jump off of the bridge.  I thought about sharing the experience we had getting trapped in a torrential downpour in Atlanta after deciding it was too nice outside to drive to the aquarium…whoops!  My girls had their fist cab ride and you would have thought Lucy had won the lottery. “MOM!!!! You can ride? In a car??? WITHOUT a carseat???”  Yes, honey. Welcome to the South…
But, instead, my mind keeps coming back to something I witnessed one afternoon.  Something probably only I thought was interesting, or astounding, or heartbreaking.  (Sometimes I honestly wonder if I never really grew out of having emotions like I did when I was twelve.)  We had taken our things down to another part of the island during one high tide because the beach outside our condo was non-existent when the tide comes in.  While we were sitting there, I watched a mother take the arm of her blind child (a girl in her late teens if not early twenties) and lead her to where the waves were hitting the shore.  The first thing that struck me was how sweet the gesture was, and then I got really choked up thinking about what must have been going on in the mother’s head.  See?  This is when most people would be all, “what do you mean? You are making this up – no one thinks this much about people they don’t even know…” but I do.
How would I even begin to describe the ocean to my sight-impaired child?  How could I convey the way that the water looks first thing in the morning when the rising sun hits it and it sparkles like a thousand tiny mirrors?  Or how the sea gulls and pelicans search, bellies nearly touching the water, until they see what they want and then dive down for their meal? How schools of teeny, tiny fish washed up with each wave, only to be pulled back into the ocean with the undercurrent?  How do you put into words what it’s like to watch two dolphins do a dance, of sorts, up and then down again in the water just feet from where you stand? 
There are things I imagine you could describe with ease to someone who might never have seen them with their eyes – trees, cats, even people with their particular features and distinctions.  But, the ocean? Ever-changing.  Light and dark, wide and deep.  Mysterious.  Elusive.  I keep coming back to that scene, replaying it in my head, and each time I think of something else I might say to that child, another explanation – something else I might have missed the first time…I imagine that mother knows how this feels.  It’s a little like feeling guilty for having the gift of sight.