Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Very Good Year

After going to a private school from Pre-K through 5th grade, our youngest daughter is finishing her first year in public school this week. And I have to tell you that we’re all very pleased with her experience.

This may seem a little odd to you for two reasons. The first is that for 19 years I taught at the same private school that she attended. The second is that she’s not in some fancy-schmancy, well-off, suburban school district; she’s attending school in the Syracuse City School District.



As a private school teacher, I had heard all the propaganda about how bad public schools were, especially in the city. I had heard about how bad the teachers were, because of how low the test scores were when compared to other suburban school districts. I had heard how violent city schools were compared to suburban school districts. I have to tell you that this has not been our experience.

Even when I was a private school teacher, I'd always maintained that the school test scores were a terrible way to judge a how well a school was actually doing, because it didn’t take into account the number of students in the district for whom English is a second language, or the number of students coming from homes where there is poverty or where education isn’t highly valued. I figured that if you took the same students and put them into Fayetteville-Manlius or Jamesville-DeWitt, you’d see their scores go down and ours go up. Furthermore, I believe that if you take those very same students into account, then the “poor test scores” that we see in those schools represent something of a miracle for those students, and the teachers should be given due credit for how far along they’ve helped to bring those kids.

In addition, even my eleven-year-old daughter was smart enough to say, “It’s not like their low scores are contagious. I’m a good student anyway. I’ll do just fine.” She also met people of many more different socioeconomic backgrounds than she did at her old school; and this is a very good thing.

I’ve met the teachers at her school, and they seem to be every bit as dedicated to their students as the teachers who I once counted as my colleagues. And the principal goes out of her way to make sure that every parent feels welcome in what is their school. Huntington may be much larger than the school we came from, but it is every bit the caring academic community that we grew to expect over the past 21 years.

Is there violence in the city schools? I’ve heard from people who grew up in the city that this was always said about our schools by people in the suburbs. For some reason they thought that there were knife fights in every school every day, and bars on all the windows…and this was 30 years ago. Of course there are some knuckleheads who can’t seem to go a day without getting into an altercation with someone, but isn’t that true everywhere?

Now don’t get me wrong, there was much that was good about our old school, and it was a wonderful place. But once you get past the propaganda and the fear, you’ll find that the city schools can be wonderful places too.


That’s what we found, and we’re looking forward to our next six years in the system.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

How to Be a Christian

Two years ago, my oldest daughter gave me Baratunde Thurston’s book How to Be Black for my birthday. When I wrote about it back in 2012, I said that this was one of the best books I’d ever read, and one that I could’ve used when I was an adolescent. That’s because back then, I suffered from regular accusations of “not being black enough,” or of being an “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside) because I liked the Beatles, and wasn’t as totally into black culture as I was “supposed to be.” This book points out, through interviews with other African-Americans who grew up everywhere from inner-city DC to rural Maryland that there are as many ways to be black as there are people who are black; and no one can say that you’re not really black because you like classical music and know how to correctly pronounce the word “ask.”

I think there needs to be a book called How to Be Christian, and here’s why: I’m just wayyy tired of the term “Christian” being hijacked to refer to only a certain type of Evangelical Christian, as if we Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, and Methodists were chopped liver (and weren’t here first). I’m also wayyy tired of the term “religious” being used the same way.

I think I’ve always been annoyed by the use of “Christian” to mean a specific type of Christian, in an us vs them way that the rest of us would never use. I mean, we might think you’re a little weird, we might think that your interpretations and practices are a little off, but we’d still consider you to be part of the "family."

The first time I remember running into this attitude was a good 35 years ago, as an undergrad, when a stranger, upon seeing the cross pin on my lapel, asked if I was a real Christian. That got my hackles up right there. As if I was only a “real” Christian if I met her definition of what a Christian was, and shared her exact same beliefs and practices.

In the years since, I’ve heard of many media figures who won’t do certain things because he or she “is a Christian,” and I want to say, “What kind of Christian? I know plenty of Catholics who will do that! They’re Christians aren’t they?” I hate the fact that when the average non-religious person hears the term “Christian,” they think of those people, rather than the rest of us, who are at least specific about what branch of Christianity we belong to when giving it as a reason for holding a specific belief, or not wanting to be involved in a certain activity.

Say you’re Pentecostal if you want to, say you belong to the Assemblies of God, say you’re a Southern Baptist; those at least give the hearer enough specificity to imply that maybe not all Christians share that belief or do things that way. But for Pete’s sake, don’t go around saying that you won’t sing certain types of songs or play certain roles because you’re a Christian, because I’m sure I can find a Presbyterian or a Lutheran who’ll have no problem with them.

So remember, there are as many different ways of being a Christian as there are people who claim the name.

Which reminds me…do you know why Southern Baptists don’t have sex standing up?

It might lead to dancing.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Of Jews and Transsexuals

Well now, that’s an odd title, isn’t it? And you’re likely wondering what they have to do with each other; what they have to say to or about each other. I’ll tell you shortly, but first I’d like to register a complaint with the Internet.

Oh, don’t get me wrong…I love the Internet. For me, it’s the library that never closes. It’s the source of information to refute all the stupidity that I’m regularly bombarded with. And yet…it’s a two-edged sword because it’s also the source of much of the stupidity that I’m bombarded with. The Internet has allowed any idiot with a broadband connection to have as much of a voice as a properly-vetted, well-established, expert on a subject.

Take for example the anti-vaxxers. 20 years ago there may have been pockets of them here and there, but they would’ve been surrounded by many more people who could try to talk a little common sense into them; and they would realize that they were very much alone in their opinions. Today, those formerly-isolated nutcases can easily find others like them, and spread their dangerous misinformation far and wide, wreaking damage that they can’t begin to imagine.

I hate to say it, but it seems to me that there are too many support groups out there on the Internet. I once heard that there was a support website for bulimics…not to help them get over their problem, but to give them tips on how to hide it better. Now that just seems wrong. I was going to joke that there’s probably a support group out there somewhere for people who pick their nose and eat it…until I found out that there actually is one.

Sigh.

Which brings me back to my title.

A while back, I remember hearing a piece on NPR about how children with what is called Gender Identity Disorder being diagnosed earlier and earlier, and how there’s more support for them now; and I was a little concerned about this support. You see, I was wondering if a kid going through what might be a temporary exploratory phase might get enough “support” that they’d feel that they couldn’t change their minds without “letting people down.”

Why do I wonder this?

Because when I was a kid I wanted to be a girl.

Really, I wanted to be a girl. 50 or so years later, I couldn’t tell you why, but I wanted to be one, and pretended I was one every now and then. Now…I knew it wasn’t possible for me to really be a girl, I didn’t learn about Christine Jorgensen until I was in my teens, and by that time I had long since grown out of that phase. So knowing that it wasn’t possible, I figured I’d just play the hand that life dealt me, and be a boy. Besides, all things considered, had I known that it was really possible, would I actually make that choice? I tend to doubt it.

On the other hand, who knows? In today’s climate would my parents feel obligated to get me counseling that might “support” my desire to be a girl, rather than figuring it was just a phase I was going through? And having put my parents and all the people who were supporting me through that, would I feel able to say, “No, wait. I don’t want to do this after all?”

This is where the Jews come in.

I’ve heard it said that not only is Judaism a non-proselytizing religion, but that when a Gentile goes to a rabbi and asks to convert, the rabbi’s supposed to turn him down three times, basically saying, “What are you, crazy? Look at what we go through because we’re born into it, and you want to take it on voluntarily? Get outta here!”

I understand the desire of members of the transgendered community to make life easier for the current generation than they had it, but I also think it would be very good if the first reaction that they had to a potential newbie was similar to that of the Jews. I mean, it’s one thing to have your family and the rest of the general world suggest that you might be making a mistake, but it’s something completely different to have people in the community that you think you’re a part of tell you to go away, and ask yourself if this is just a phase you’re going through.

Now don’t get me wrong…I know my share of transsexuals, all of whom concluded definitively somewhere after the age of seven that they were in the wrong body. I understand enough about biology and brain chemistry to know that these things do happen. And I’m not saying that these people should be trapped forever in the wrong body.

What I am wondering, however, is if our current age of providing “support” for every issue a person might have is creating a few irreversible false positives.

And that’s why I think that a Jewish approach to newbie support from the transgendered community might be a good thing.


OK, let the hate mail begin!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Little Light, It Goes On!

It’s funny how these things happen. You read something on one subject, and end up not only learning something totally different, but understanding something that made no sense to you before. In this case it was an article by Elizabeth Kiscaden, in the March issue of Computers in Libraries on the Prezi presentation tool.

As part of the article, she mentioned a presentation she had created at Waldorf College on how and when to cite properly in order to avoid charges of plagiarism. This was particularly interesting to me because I had always been confused by and annoyed by it. In particular, I was bothered by how certain fields can be really anal about citations and make a potentially career-damaging claim of plagiarism for something that wouldn’t be an issue in a children’s book on the same subject.

In particular, I was still bothered about the 2002 case of the Gene Tobin, president of Hamilton College, who was forced to resign when someone noticed that he used an unattributed phrase from a review on Amazon.com in a speech he gave, thus violating the honor code that he was supposed to enforce. This sent shivers down my spine…I mean, good grief, is the well-read, reasonably informed person supposed to keep notes on everything they’ve ever read or heard so that they can cite it properly months, or even years, down the road when it percolates up from their memory and they say it themselves? If that’s the case, then we’re all guilty of plagiarism, and we’re screwed.

I found the answer to my confusion in that presentation, and it all goes back to an argument I had over 30 years ago with a friend over writing styles. You see, this friend was being trained to write as a historian and an academic, while I had been trained to write as a journalist and a “popularizer.”

According to the presentation I looked at, as a historian, researcher, or some other academic, the point is to show that from the old information you've synthesized something new, and to give the world a new voice, one that is not "authentically yours" if you don't cite correctly and/or present other people's ideas without attribution. In addition, my friend from 30 years ago would say that the point of all those anal footnotes is to leave a paper trail of sorts so that other scholars can check your facts, and maybe refer to one of your sources for their own research.

As a journalist, a blogger, or a popularizer, I don't for a moment believe that I'm adding new material or original research to the canon; nor does anyone else. What I am doing is to make the information that’s already out there accessible to an audience that it may not have reached before. I try to give the readers a few links to where they may find some of that information, but I don't have to footnote every unoriginal thought I put down. I’m simply reporting.

Of course, I could argue that as a blogger, I give the world a new voice, or at least a different one. It’s just that mine isn’t one that even pretends to live up to "academic standards," but rather, those of casual, well-informed, conversation.

Once again, as I think of those casual, well-informed, conversations, I think of how stilted they would be if we had to cite every unoriginal thought or turn of phrase that came out of our mouths. I think about things I heard or read when I was 16, whose sources are lost in the mists of time, but that over the decades become a part of me and my regular conversation. If I had to perfectly cite every one of those ideas, I’d neither open my mouth nor put metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper.


Of course, some of you might like that.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Name Game

A few weeks ago, one of my Facebook friends posted an interesting article by Robert T Gonzalez on naming trends in the United States over the past few decades. It started out talking about how an incredible number of boys’ names end with the letter “n,” and then went on to take a look at some of those names. We’re not talking about old classics like Alan, Brian, Byron, Colin, Darren, and a host of others, including that classic among classics…John; we’re talking about names like Aiden, Braeden, Hayden, and…yes…Jayden.

In fact, he goes on to state that the number of “final n names” these days has increased simply by the number of variant spellings. Take Jayden for example; in addition to that spelling, there’s also Jaden, Jadon, Jadyn, Jaeden, Jaiden, Jaidyn, Jaydan, Jaydin, and Jaydon. Had they all shared a common spelling of Jaden, Jaiden, or any of the other variants, we’d have one name that rivaled the popularity of John, and fewer names in the pool. But because of those nine variant spellings of one pronunciation, and the same thing happening with Aiden and Braeden, we’re ending up with more “final n” names on the list, even though they’re the same to the ear.

What’s going on here? It’s not a change in how we name kids. Not at all. It’s a change in how we spell their names. Faced with a name that you really like, but that happens to be really hot at the time, rather than pick a totally different name altogether, parents are going for the more unique spelling of the one they wanted…as if that will make any difference to the ear. All of those Kaylees, Kailees, Kayleighs, and Kayleas are going to sound exactly the same when their names are called on the playground. It’s the same bloody name, and no one’s gonna hear the spelling.

Now, before you start talking about the pot and the kettle, I know. I know, I know, I know. I’m guilty of this myself. When our first daughter was born, I liked the name Sarah, but I also knew too many of them. As a teacher, I had six of them, in two different grades, at the same time. Some were spelled Sarah and some were spelled Sara. Not only did I already know too many of them at school, but at the time there were other kids that she would be around with the same name. Being one of a bunch of Keiths born in the mid-50s, I knew what that was like. I didn’t want her to have the same name as anyone she’d spend a lot of time around, I didn’t want her to have to deal with that confusion; so we decided on Devra, a decidedly unusual name.

Nine years later, our second daughter is born, and according to the deal we made, Cheryl got to name this one. She had her heart set on the name Sophia, because it meant “wisdom” in Greek. I, being the geek that I am, looked up the name in the charts, saw that it was in the top 50, and moving up every year. I begged her not to do this. I begged her for the sake of the kid, not to do this, not to saddle her with a name that every other girl her age would have. I begged her to pick something below 100…like Elisa. But she wouldn’t have it. She was adamant; the girl’s name would be Sophia. Fine, but I asked that if she was going to have the same name as half her classmates, could we at least spell it differently…could we spell it with an “f” instead of with the “ph?” She conceded on that.

As if it makes any difference when someone calls for Sophie at a soccer game. The heads of four players, and who knows how many spectators turn, no matter how it’s spelled. And I’ve added to the confusion of every teacher she’ll ever have…something that I should’ve known better than to do…all because I wanted her very common name to stand out.

And so I beg all of you who are in the position of choosing a name for a child to think carefully about this. If the name you absolutely love is also really trendy, either just suck it up and choose a different one, or keep it and use the common spelling. Don’t make up a new spelling so that it will look unique; it won’t matter on the playground or in the classroom, and will just confuse everyone who has to spell it.


Now what about my Sofia? Well, years later, after seeing just how many other Sophias and Sofias there are out there, Cheryl has conceded that I was right, and that she should’ve picked something else; but she also said that she was under hormone-induced madness at the time. And Sofie has her own opinion on this. One day she went to Cheryl in a very frustrated voice and said, “Mama, why did you have to give me a name that everyone else has? Why couldn’t you give me one that no one else has…like Susan!”