Sunday, February 22, 2009

Safe Schools

I am a professional grant writer. The only other professional grant writers I know are colleagues I have met through my own grant writing work. I have never gone to a party and asked someone, “What do you do?” and had them answer that they are a grant writer. I would wager that most people haven’t a clue what I do all day. Because I have fallen into a groove of writing a lot of U.S. Department of Education grants, this time of year has become my busy season since a lot of the Dept. of Ed. grant announcements and deadlines happen now. One of my big bread-and-butter grants is the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative, due on March 4 this year. I am simultaneously working on Teaching American History and also Improving Literacy Through School Libraries grants, both of which are also due the first week in March. Once I complete this batch, the next group up are the Readiness and Emergency Management in the Schools grants to help schools be prepared to deal with any crisis situation. These became popular after Columbine.

Much of the work I do involves gathering data to support the need for a project. My clients provide much of it, but often they only know what they see and don’t have the hard facts to back it up. I dig up the statistics to show that yes indeed they have a problem with violence or drug use. I had one client a few years ago in an affluent school district who wanted to show need based on the fact that the students had staged a food fight in the cafeteria, which was a mess to clean up and showed considerable disrespect for the school and the faculty. While I was writing her grant, I was also writing a grant for an economically disadvantaged district where one in three students wound up in the juvenile justice system and students smoked weed in the classrooms daily while teachers looked the other way. Yes, I do discover the most startling truths about what is going on in our schools during the course of a day’s work.

My cousin works in an urban school district that will remain unnamed. In 2007, her district’s high school was on the Dept. of Ed.’s short list of “persistently dangerous schools.” Now this is interesting because there is federal funding to assist persistently dangerous schools. It is available to schools that got on the list because of the data they provided. The reason why there were only a dozen schools on the 2007 list is because most districts falsify, distort, or otherwise use selective practices to gather their data. Let’s face it, what district wants to be labeled persistently dangerous? But a few districts each year give up, and report the data necessary to get on the list so they can apply for the funds. My cousin told me that two years ago the district installed a metal detector at the entrance to the high school over the summer. On the first day of school, students were shocked to discover that they had to go through the metal detector to get into school. With no other choice, students unloaded weapons they were carrying on the front lawn. It looked like an arsenal. Knives. Guns. Large guns. They have a lot of children in this district who have fled with their families from war-torn regions of the world. These children are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and they continue to fear for their lives. Add that to an active gang culture and high rates of violence in the community and there is your arsenal on the front lawn of the school. Frightening? Very. It gets worse. Once they knew there was a metal detector, the students started to unplug it, walk into school carrying weapons, and plug it back in behind them. The school security staff looked the other way. Teachers looked the other way. Why? Fear and discomfort. The staff didn’t want to deal with it. I am presently writing a grant for a district that experiences physical fights on their high school and middle school campuses every single day. Every single day, more than 20% of their students smoke weed on campus. When my contacts at the district went to find data for me about student violent behavior, they were shocked to discover that the number of assaults by teachers on students was extraordinarily high.

I look at this data. I look at these communities, and I am grateful for my quiet little rural town where I raised my children in relative safety. If I am lucky, my grants will be funded. I will walk away with my grant writing fee, and the dedicated folks at the district will have their work cut out for them, as they do every day, climbing uphill, trying to make a difference in the lives of children, teenagers, and their families. That is how I make a difference, I help them get the funding to implement the programs they know will make a positive change. Inch by inch. Child by child. Family by family. So it goes. But I will tell you what I have learned in nearly ten years of doing this work with communities in over twenty-five states: the best communities are the ones that make their highest priority the health, education, care, and nurturing of their children. That’s what makes safe schools, safe communities.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dad's 80th Birthday

In April my dad will turn 80. Although we lost my mother in 2005, Dad has stayed busy and insists on enjoying life. I know he misses Mom every day, but there is nothing that can be done about that. He knows she would have wanted him to continue enjoying his life and so he does it both for himself and in honor of her memory. Perhaps it’s this double mission that puts him a bit over the top when it comes to “staying active.” Cousin Marcie stays active by playing ping-pong twice a week. My 84-year-old neighbor stays active by sitting on her front porch every morning and baking a coffee cake each month. Dad stays active by canoeing down the Amazon and sleeping in native huts in the Galapagos. (Hence the many pictures of our family in Panama Hats on Ron’s Picasa-on-the-web album, if you have been there.)

Dad travels to international destinations every year. China. Israel. Turkey. Last month he went on a Caribbean cruise. In June he will go to Scotland with his Scottish Country Dance Group. He dances with this group at least once a week. When he discovered that there is a Jewish Tartan, he just had to buy a kilt made of the stuff. Here is a picture of Dad in his Jewish Tartan.

On New Years’ Eve, Dad wore the Jewish Tartan to a dinner at his retirement community. An old woman who spoke no English (only Spanish) sat next to him. She looked unhappy and finally her daughter told Dad that she was uneasy sitting next to a man in a skirt. Dad explained to the daughter that it was the Jewish Tartan kilt. The daughter explained in Spanish to her ancient mother that it’s a Scottish thing. I wonder if the woman understood. She had apparently never heard of this. She would certainly have been more confused if she had known Dad was Jewish. Perhaps she did. Perhaps she thinks the kilt is a Jewish thing. In Dad’s case, I suppose it is.

I am grateful to have such a lively, healthy, alert father. He certainly has his aches and pains and physical limitations. His mind is fully intact. He works as a mathematician on a consulting basis from time to time. He still works on his own math problems. Perhaps he’ll publish another book some day (he has two already in print). I think his next one should be his memoirs, including his many adventures with the Boy Scouts (he has been a member for nigh on 70 years) rather than a mathematics book that only a handful of geniuses can understand.

So yesterday I spent about three hours online trying to buy budget tickets to New Jersey over spring break for our family of five to go to Dad’s 80th Birthday Party. There is no such thing as a budget ticket at spring break. The whole ticket-buying experience left me shaking in a cold sweat. The whole traveling experience will be even worse, I fear. But how often does one have the good fortune to attend their father’s 80th birthday? Can’t pass it up. Can’t complain. Can’t wait.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Shades of My Dinner with Andre

Last night I had one of those “My-Dinner-with-Andre” evenings. My college friend Julia was in San Francisco on business. I have not seen her in about 5 years. She lives in Vermont. I drove two hours to my friend Jessica’s house in Vallejo and she kept me company on the trek into San Francisco on BART to meet Julia for dinner. I have known Jessica for more than 15 years and we have watched our children grow up together, seeing each other three or four times a year. After Jessica and I figured out how to get across Market St. in the moments before the Chinese New Year Parade (not an easy task, yay Jessica for sorting that out), we found Julia waiting for us at her hotel and the three of us walked a dozen blocks to Whole Foods where we ate salads and commandeered a table for nearly four hours. Julia is a Latina (Dominican) writer and college English teacher. Jessica is African American, also a college English teacher. And then there’s me. All three of us have a master’s degree in English and complicated sprawling blended families. We could have talked all night, if we could have stayed awake.

Our siblings. What they do. How they do. What it means to us. Our parents. My mother is gone and so is Jessica’s father. Julia’s parents both have Alzheimer’s and she and her sisters take turns caring for them in their home in the Dominican Republic. They have become helpless children, only aware of daily essentials. But Julia’s mother is so delighted to hear Julia’s voice on the phone, so excited to see her when she visits, that she is touched by her mother’s open loving excitement. Jessica’s mother lives with her and is a big part of her life. She feels fortunate to have such a close relationship with her mother. My father, who will be 80 in April, is a globetrotter, a livewire. I know that last night he wore his Jewish tartan kilt to the Robbie Burns Dinner where he and his Scottish Country Dance Group danced. At one point during our conversation, Julia shared with us her analysis of her relationship with her mother, which has taken her a lifetime to understand. Tears welled in Jessica’s eyes as she realized that Julia had just given her the key to a large dimension of her relationship with her own mother. An epiphany.

Children and grandchildren. Jessica and Julia are besotted with their granddaughters! I don’t have any yet (only step step children, whom I rarely see, in distant St. Louis). So then we all take out the photographs. Admire those sweet faces. How we love our grown children and try to continue to care for them without interfering in their lives. The things that change in our relationships with our children and the things that never do. Our fears for them, our hopes that the world will improve and offer them a future. How we are willing to hope again with Obama in the White House.

I tell Julia about our inaugural ball. Jessica talks about the once-in-a-lifetime moment of standing with the multitudes on the mall in DC. She had to be there so she went. Jessica says that if we lost Obama tomorrow, he will still have won because he has inspired Americans to be the best that we can be. He has already done this. It can’t be taken away. It is the future. Julia describes watching the inauguration on a tiny TV in an outpost in the Dominican Republic with her husband and Dominican friends and acquaintances. They stood and sang the American national anthem together. She thought in that moment that we have not simply elected a president for America, but a leader of the world. It is as if he is everyone’s president, in every country. All three of us, entrenched Lefties for decades, Julia now deep in the politics of fair trade coffee, Jessica inspiring her students to think about things from a new perspective, and me. My days on the front lines. Getting arrested for blockading a nuclear weapons facility. Harboring illegal immigrants from El Salvador, victims of torture, victims of our own government’s disastrous foreign policy. Well, we finally see the possibility that in our lifetimes, yes in our lifetimes…. We talk about how 9/11 could have been the moment for an evolutionary shift. But our government failed to see it, failed to recognize it. Now, we have seized such a moment. The shift is occurring.

Talking about our work. Jessica and Julia talking about teaching. Julia was one of the first “minority” teachers hired at Middlebury. How things have changed. Julia tells us about an African American gospel singer now working with students at Middlebury. Jessica took a sabbatical last semester to do a research study of women in academia, with special attention to women of color. She shared some of her findings, disheartening. She teaches at City College. I don’t teach. I continue to struggle with first getting enough grant writing work, then doing all of it, and finally dealing with my depression when I have no time for my creative writing. Suggestions from Julia about publishing. Then a conversation about the complexities of the publishing business. Where it is going. How it is broken. How talent is lost or found in the system. How people are heard. Recognized. Supported in sustaining a writing career.

Films. Books. What we are reading. What authors resonate with us. Children’s books. I joked that we would need a bibliography for our conversation! So many of our references as we talked, analyzed, and explained our lives were literary references. Junot Diaz, Lorraine Hansberry, the Old Testament, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” Freakonomics, Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” and recent Newberry winner Neil Gaiman’s book about children growing up in a graveyard. So many books, so little time. I have half a dozen from last night’s conversation now on order through our local library computer system.

Our dreams. How we hang on. What feeds us. Julia and I have loving husbands, relationships that work. We joke about the ways they work. Our fears. Financial worries. Julia’s husband and mine both grew up in extreme poverty and I think people who grew up poor worry less about money. I tell Julia that Ron figures if we lose everything we won’t be any worse off than where he started and he was surrounded with family and friends, enjoyed life, despite the challenges of poverty. He seems to have the attitude, “what’s the worst that can happen?” Julia laughs out loud. “That’s what Bill says all the time,” she tells me. Jessica is worried about paying her mortgage. I am worried about putting my children through college. Julia is worried about having the means to care for her senile aging parents to the bitter end. Yet we are wealthy, wealthy beyond measure. For here we are, three women, who travel in different circles in our individual lives, and we have had the opportunity to come together for this one evening to share the contents of our hearts with each other. What’s the worst that can happen? I am already wealthy with riches that cannot be robbed.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Not By Fire, Not By Ice, But By Paper

We will not perish by fire or ice next time but by paper. If I thought I had too much paperwork when my children were young, well this “biz” (as I call it) is overwhelming now that they are adults. For instance, Akili needs to show proof of enrollment at SDSU or he will lose his medical benefits under Ron’s plan at the school district. The only acceptable proof is a letter with raised seal from the bursar’s office, which he cannot obtain until he shows up for the first day of class. Clock is ticking and I am receiving increasingly hysterical “reminder” emails from the benefits lady at the school district. Do I lie awake at night worrying about global warming? No, I’m too busy worrying that Akili will have a freak skateboarding accident during the 48 hours that his medical coverage is not in effect and that I will have to hold a raffle to sell my house to pay the subsequent emergency room bill. How did contemporary life become so complicated? Four centuries ago, if a young man had a skateboarding accident, he would have bled to death in the street while bystanders murmured, “Dang, I left my leeches in my other breeches” and “What’s a skateboard?”

My daughter was laid off and while looking for another job, she thought she’d file unemployment. She can’t schedule an appointment by phone or in person as the unemployment office got overwhelmed with all the folks now out of work and so they went to play mini-golf. Who can blame them when half the country is unemployed, including everyone in Wyoming who doesn’t own a dude ranch? She applied online and subsequently received a packet of forms thicker than the Talmud in the mail. She came home to get help from me to figure out which ID to photocopy to verify her identity. We selected one from Column A and one from Column B and ordered won ton soup and spring rolls on the side.

Now that Sudi has sent in his college applications, he has joined a paperwork trauma recovery group. With the admissions applications behind him, he has progressed to th next level of bureaucracy: putting together scholarship applications. He leaves for school in the morning with “recommendation letters” written on the back of his hand and returns in the evening with “read War and Peace for English” written on his forehead. I suggested he try writing lists to stay organized and for once he took my advice. He mounted a dry-erase board on his wall and wrote the word “SKATE” on it. (As in skateboarding.) Skate is not just at the top of his list. It IS his list. Getting him to write the scholarship essays is like extracting Orson Wells from a wet suit. “So why do you want to study art? What inspires you?” I ask. “Have you seen my chapstick?” he answers. That Jewish genetics, answering questions with questions.

On my last trip to the grocery store, my debit card was rejected. How embarrassing. Especially after I had just put back the pound of flour, gallon of apple cider, marinated artichoke hearts, and the bag of Barbara’s all natural organic cheese doodles (that Ron had specifically requested) in order to get the subtotal down to $200. Since when are apple cider and organic cheese doodles luxury items? I had to pay the bill with my credit card instead. When I got home I went online to find out what was going on with my checking account and discovered that the bank had changed my password as a courtesy to prevent anyone from hacking into my account. Including me. The next morning, first thing, I turned up at the bank and discovered that they had frozen my checking account until I paid my home equity line of credit payment, which I had already paid (I had the receipt to prove it). Oops, their bad. They fixed it. I am trying to switch over to paperless online bill pay, but I find it distracting to be in the middle of a conference call with a grant writing client and have the cell phone bill arrive via email. I can’t resist taking a peek and then, when I see that AT&T has accidentally charged me $3,000 in individual text messages sent by Sudi (at 10 cents a message) because they removed his unlimited texting plan for some mysterious reason, well, I have an apoplectic seizure, which sounds bad over the phone to my grant writing client.

No wonder I snap at the financial aid counselor from the Art Institute who calls to remind me to file the forms for federal student aid. His name is Mark. Mark was assigned to us when Sudi was accepted at the Art Institute. I explain to Mark that we need to complete our taxes before we can file for federal student aid and that I have provided the accountant with all the paperwork except Ron’s deductions and that Ron, my darling ADD husband, has been up until midnight all week wading through his fleet of baskets of paper, several of which were thrown intact onto the moving van and then taken off the moving van in June without missing so much as a paperclip in the process. I am only as fast as my husband’s filing system when it comes to this one. And he doesn’t even have a dry-erase board with the word “skate” written on it to help him. It’s Mark’s job to help us find the money to pay the tuition so Sudi can attend the Art Institute. Unfortunately, the tuition is more than the total annual income of a small village in Nigeria. Why do I feel like a Hedonist for wanting my son to attend college? Mark reminds me that the Art Institute managed to come up with enough scholarship money to enroll a homeless student this year. This is supposed to make me feel better, but I am thinking, yes, it’s middle class people like me who make too much money for a free ride and who are returning apple cider and cheese doodles at the check-out stand to pay tuition so that homeless children can receive scholarship money. I sound ungrateful, don’t I? I should remember that I am one of the privileged people who lives in a house and owns filing cabinets. I must accept the things I cannot change and find a good recipe for homemade cheese doodles.