Tag Archives: school

Unblinded by Science

This weekend was Earth Day and also the March for Science around the country. My friend Mike and I went to the march in Boston, which was transformed into a rally for safety reasons. That might sound suspect, as plenty of other big cities managed to have marches without mishap, but Boston is so chock full of hospitals, universities, and businesses engaged in scientific research of all kinds that marching around is probably fairly redundant. We just gathered at the Boston Common and swept our arms in a broad circle to call out the all the science going on around us.

You might ask, what is a one-time failed biology major doing at a science rally? A one-time bio major who eventually accepted herself and became a word girl, that is. Well, a funny thing happened on the way to mid-life. My ex is a nurse, I have science and math kid, and I work in communications at a hospital. And while my kid can render me inert by flashing his calculus notebook with derivatives, slopes, and tangents, I have come to appreciate the importance of science and math. I have also come to appreciate all the people who do it much better than I do and actually enjoy it, leaving me to play in my word sand box. So, thanks for that. Also, thanks for creating all of the vaccines that prevent small pox, chicken pox, and all the other poxes Shakespeare liked to insult people with. Not having to battle preventable, contagious, deadly diseases leaves more time for my writing and yoga and, you know, that crazy thing called living.

At the rally, school kids from across New England who had won an essay writing contest read their work, and they were all about cleaning the air and the water and needing science to find cures and look for other planets we could live on — clearly these kids aren’t betting on us to fix this in time. I can’t say I blame them; they are way savvier than we were at that age. When we were in school, we used stone tablets, ate bark off of trees, and called this Earth stuff ecology. Remember this symbol?


I have clear memories of coloring this on many purple-inked mimeographed handouts, oops, I mean stone tablets. I also remember the message being simpler; mostly it seemed to involve not littering. I drew a lot of pristine landscapes with full trash cans, and I picked up a fair amount of litter; although back then it was mostly soda cans and paper bags. But the general idea has stayed with me all these years, even though I didn’t even like science for a good number of them. That’s what education is supposed to do, so how come it hasn’t sunk in for some people? I’m talking to you, Cheeto Flea and your minions. Maybe a little more coloring in Cheeto’s youth might have helped us out here. Or we can just stick a Crayon in his eye now.

If science teaches us anything it’s that evolution is not always a progressive process, so here we are some 40 years later having to explain why science and the environment are worth protecting. I get that there is a lot more we should do — we need more social justice-informed funding; we need to figure out how to make the cures we do find more affordable to everyone who needs it; we need to make the information about science discoveries more accessible to everyone and be able to say why it matters. Science is a long game of patience and persistence, which is kind of a drag in our very impatient society. After discovering penicillin in a failed bacteria experiment, it took another 10 years before it was actually usable as a treatment. Many discoveries take longer than that.

So, yeah, science needs some defenders, and that’s why I was so excited to see another part of my childhood at the march, Beaker, from The Muppet Show who is the long-suffering assistant of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. I know Beaker is a true man of science because only a scientist would have the patience to get waylaid by a grinning middle-aged women who busted in just after a kid got his picture with him. OK, maybe he was a little scared too, but the point is we all have something to contribute — as users of science, practitioners of science, or fictional characters based on science. Eyes wide open, we’re watching.



Collegepalooza 2016

I’m happy to report that Collegepalooza 2016 has come to a close. I know it feels like we just got started, but I spared you the blow-by-blow descriptions of the three-hour drives at 8 pm across Massachusetts into New York. You’re welcome.

I already wrote about one tour, but the other one of note was the first one. I found myself on a stormy Saturday afternoon at Dartmouth College. It’s one of those campuses right out of central casting that doesn’t need a sunny, fall day to scream hoidy toidy pre-1800s New England college. I admit I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder being at the Ivy League school. They are all snooty, right? But then the chipper young man giving the tour began making comparisons to its “peer” colleges; as in “we have more research opportunities that our peers, we have a better student faculty ratio that our peers.” I started to get the sense Dartmouth may be considered “lesser” among its “peers.” I can pretty much guarantee that on the Harvard tour they are not comparing themselves to Dartmouth — or anybody else for that matter. In a way, it actually made me like Dartmouth more. It reminded me of that old Avis ad, “We’re number two, so we try harder.”

Once I was able to let go of my little prejudice, I started to notice a weird thing about the people on the tour. A significant number of the pairs of perspective college kids and their parents were dressed similarly. There was the sturdy mother and son team in their North Face wet weather gear. I was actually a little envious of them; it was raining on and off, and we’d forgotten umbrellas. I’d thought/hoped maybe the tour guide office might supply them. Makes sense right? Dry perspective students and parents get to concentrate on how great your school is rather than being distracted by their squishy wet shoes. It wasn’t an unrealistic expectation — when we visited a State University of New York school, I saw a big bucket of umbrellas. State school. Just sayin’.

Anyway, back to our pairs. There was a stereotypical Ivy League preppy dad and daughter. He look like he stepped out of the Lands’ End catalog, I kid you not. Right down to the summer sweater tied around his neck. I’m actually probably insulting him with the Lands’ End reference. There was a prominent, way-higher-end-than-I-shop, brand label on his khaki shorts. I just didn’t recognize it or remember it, and as taking photos of people’s asses is rather frowned upon, I can’t tell you what it was. The daughter was wearing a slightly funkier version of the outfit. Her multicolored shorts clearly had preppy roots, but the designers had taken a careful fashion runway step out of that box. There wasn’t a label on her shorts.

There was the practical/nerdy-looking mother and son team with the see-through plastic ponchos, different colors, and the mother and daughter who were both taking it up a notch with nice dresses. Nothing says “I’m better than you” than being dressed up on an outdoor walking tour on a rainy Saturday. I half expected to see a manservant walking next to them with an umbrella. I know, I shouldn’t judge — perhaps they had a charity event to attend to afterward.

My kid and I were not dressed similarly, and I consider it a good thing. However, I fully accept that there may be another blog out there wondering at parent and child pairs who did not look like they belonged together, and postulating they were crashing the tour for the coffee and snacks. I neither confirm, nor deny.

So in addition to learning that some families actually do dress alike, and it’s not just the Sears catalog family models all wearing the same red plaid pajamas, here are some other tidbits I can pass along to those of you who may need to go down this road:

  1. You may call today’s kids lazy, entitled, etc, but they do way more in college than I ever did. I’m not talking about these hyper-involved guides — they’re just freaks of nature. No, I’m referring to the fact that nearly everyone has a major and minor, does research, and goes abroad. Even my kid noticed and asked me what my minor was. In my day only super ambitious people did minors. I switched majors my junior year, so I probably could’ve had enough courses for a minor, but as I recall there was extra paperwork/waiting in an endless line at the registrar’s office to file said paperwork. There may have also been a fee, and since I was living on $40 a week to cover food, phone, and electricity, I’m thinking that wasn’t in the cards for me. God, I sound like a Depression-era survivor. For the record, I did not walk 10 miles to get to school.
  2. There are more food choices than in New York City, complete with semi-famous chef night and the local farm fresh food bar. I’ve never lived in New York, but people who do extol the virtue of having access to any kind of food 24 hours a day. The college food trough isn’t quite open 24 hours, but they do have everything, including a soy milk dispenser. Now this may be an odd thing for me to notice, but hear me out. I drink soy milk to reduce my hot flashes, so I had no idea there were other reasons to drink it, or that so many non-perimenopausal people drink it, they need a damn dispenser. In my day, there was just food, and my first cheese blintz qualifies as exotic.
  3. There are more student resources than actual students, but it’s an open question about whether anyone actually uses them. At first I was impressed about how many staff/faculty/places students could go to for help — everything from writing an essay to advice on creating an app to discussing a personal problem. By the fourth school, though, I started to wonder, do kids actually use them? None of the wonder guides admitted to using them, and only a few mentioned that they had “a friend” who used this or that resource. Sounded suspicious. It reminded me of the guidance counselor I had in high school. Yes, technically we had “guidance;” however, the reality was that mine was an old fart a few years from retirement. (Hey, Mr. Ginsberg, you sucked.) I was an honors student who wanted to go to college, but he urged me to take a non-college track, elective course — maybe it was tie-dying or something — because it fit better in my schedule and he complained that otherwise he’d have to do extra work rearranging my schedule to make sure I had the appropriate courses. Was I trying to get into art school? Planning on taking a  VW bus across the country after high school? No, so fill out the paperwork you lazy ass and get me into that college required science class. “Resources” may not be all they are cracked up to be.

Are any of the schools we visited the right fit for my kid? Who knows. To completely jumble my metaphors, all I know is that this is a marathon not a sprint, and we’ll jump off that bridge when we get to it. The college visits are done. Up next, the Common Application. I’m going to need more wine.

A Modest Proposal of Gratitude for Parenting Advice

With school back in full swing, I’d like to take this opportunity to send an open thank you to all of the parenting advice experts who, through the internet, TV, books, and magazines, tirelessly keep me informed about how inadequate my parenting skills are. One article that particularly stands out was in the New York Times. That hallowed publication wouldn’t steer me wrong, would it? A clinical psychologist wrote that she noticed an increase in the number of lost and confused 20-somethings coming into her office. Normally she can find a despot parent as the cause of the problem. But these clients consider their parents to be friends and wonderful people. Luckily the author pointed out that in her opinion, it’s because these parents have been so nice that their kids are screwed up. Phew, I really dodged a bullet there. I had just gotten to the point in my 16 years of parenting that I thought maybe I wasn’t screwing my son up. After years of worrying and doing my best to follow all of your excellent advice, I had just begun to think that maybe my son would be OK. He has some good friends, is respectful, is an A student and got a perfect score in math and science on the Massachusetts standardized tests. But I have been rightly corrected and now understand my hubris. He is going to be lost and messed up, and it’s best that I not pretend I did a decent job.

When I first read the article, I did have a passing and erroneous thought that regardless of parenting styles, many 20-somethings are dazed and confused. Director Richard Linklater has made an entire career out of it. And wasn’t there some confusion among those young people from the 60s and 70s? But then I realized parents didn’t know any better back then, while today’s parents have a steady stream of advice. I just wish I were smart enough to understand why experts on older children tell me I haven’t allowed my child to fail enough and learn independence, while the experts on younger children create great lists of things I should be doing to prevent all kinds of physical and mental mishaps at home and at school.

There are a lot of lists and a lot of rules. Helmets, and knee and elbow pads for just being outside in general. Gates in the stairways and having the right kind of crib with the right-spaced slates, and making sure the food I fed him wasn’t too full of solids, sugars, fillers, dyes, or McDonald’s Happy Meal toys–oh wait we shouldn’t even be at McDonald’s.

I never did get around to putting those things on the cabinet doors to prevent them from opening. And even though the articles I read were very clear, I did not ask the mom at my son’s first play date if she had guns in the house. I should have, I know, even though Massachusetts isn’t really a pro-gun kind of place. Unlocked up guns are very dangerous, as are a host of other things I was supposed to check. But it was a really long list, and I was very busy following the advice of another article that said I needed to interact with my child most of the time to ensure his brains and body were properly stimulated. I take full responsibility that I couldn’t do it all. How my son is still alive is both a mystery and a miracle.

The school years bring more lists from both the schools and the articles, which all clearly state that I am to be involved in my child’s education and encourage sports and activities. Homework started in kindergarten, and I’m so very grateful for that. Since no kindergartener can do homework by himself, it helped me get involved from day one, whether I wanted to or not. As the years wore on, I confess there were nights when I was tired from earning a living, and the thought of helping with math homework, reading or reviewing schoolwork, assisting in science and history fair projects, or just having a family game night to reduce screen time made me want to sit in my car outside my house and drink. I know you experts wouldn’t steer me wrong, and my impulse to drink when I’m completely overwhelmed and stressed out proves how much I need expert advice to keep me on the right path.


I thought when my child got older, I might be able to let him do more things on his own, but the school’s requirements for my participation increased, and the child experts concurred. In fact the school often sends home your articles to help me understand. Like helpful reminders that families who eat and exercise together stay healthier. I was also encouraged to attend more things at school like “math night” and “game night” and the always popular “middle-of-the-day-inconvenient-for-working-parents assembly.” It is my own fault that I couldn’t quite figure out how to attend all these events, make a good meal, get the family to exercise, and help with homework all between 6:30 and 8:30. Many of your expert articles warned me about letting my son stay up later than 8:30—it may lead him to drugs or a bad career choice or just being sleepy. I’m not sure—I screw up so much, I get a lot of the consequences of my terrible parenting confused.

When I’m avoiding some parental duty, I sometimes think back to my own childhood. My parents didn’t do most of these things with me, and in fact they forgot my name a lot of the time because I was the fourth  kid, and you can see how well that turned out; I can’t properly execute the expert advice you all so untiringly give me. It’s certainly not because the advice you give is contradictory and more based on trends than common sense. And it certainly isn’t a reflection of our society—its increased fear of nearly everything, the tendency to prevent every mishap and avoid every lawsuit, the obsession with perfection and preoccupation with blame. No, that’s just the wine and gas fumes talking. Because if it were true, we’d have to accept that each generation of parents does the best it can with the tools at hand, and that having too many tools can be just as difficult as not having enough. We’d have to accept that what each generation teaches the next is often a reflection of what society agrees is desirable in its future citizens. We’d have to accept that we are not perfect. Now THAT’S crazy. As experts, you must continue to put the blame on my child’s shortcomings squarely on me. I do thank you all for trying your best; some of us are beyond help.

Read the real story behind the funny fake and spot-on science project poster. 

Back to School Salute: 6 Questions You Won’t Get Answered in the Classroom

Many kids don’t go back to school until after Labor Day, but mine started this past Wednesday. Yes, the body of August isn’t even cold yet, and the grind has started. And no, it’s not starting this early because of Boston’s record snow fall last winter. The district decided to be democratic and give all the religious holidays off—Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, so the kids are only going to school for like five days during the month of September. I wish I could get me some of that for work. If we all got all the religious holidays off and participation was optional, we’d all be a lot more tolerant, don’t you think? Politicians, if you can take a break from nay saying and being extreme, maybe you could get working on that idea.

But I digress. Regardless of the start date, for many people back-to-school means posting annoying (to the rest of us) pics of your favorite student all bright and shiny with a brand new back pack and big smile. I’m not jealous in the least, and don’t worry, you won’t find me clogging up my Facebook page with that rubbish. You see, for my teen school has always been a grueling event to grimly endure like a Dust Bowl farmer. Believe me, nobody wants or needs this documented, with the exception of the Dust Bowl farmers above. We’re both just waiting for it to be over.

But I didn’t come here to bellyache about school, well I did a little, but I did want to acknowledge that school is starting and in honor of that and in lieu of smiling happy students, I present here 6 questions my friends and I have been pondering lately. I submit to you that they are way more useful and interesting than questions you get in school, which is why we never got the answers.

  1. Are blue balls a real thing? My friend insists that this is a real and dangerous condition, and I say it’s a condition guys made up to get laid. So I looked it up, and yes, it can happen and involves restricted blood flow and oxygen getting absorbed during an extended erection, blah, blah, blah. But it won’t kill you, and the website I consulted described it as more of a “minor pain.” Soooo I’m going to give you that it’s an actual medical condition, but that it’s dangerous? Um, yeah, no.
  2. Do hamsters change their sex? Another friend as a kid had two hamsters that were both female, and the next thing he knew there were baby hamsters everywhere. Based on that experience, he claims hamsters can change their sex by necessity. I seriously doubted that because it’s such an anomaly, it would have been used in a biology class as an example of whatever that’s called, and we all would have remembered it, even a word girl like me. When I Googled it, you’d be surprised at how popular that question is. Sorry to disappoint, but it’s not a freak of nature. The main culprit seems to be pet stores’ lack of skill in 1) identifying males and females correctly and 2) the corollary result of that misidentification, which is that you can bring home a hamster that is already pregnant. Hence, the amazing sex-changing hamster. Not.
  3. If a tree falls in the forest and you see and hear it, does it count as a philosophical event, or is it just falling deadwood? Yes? No? Discuss.
  4. What does a typed period look like in italics? In a discussion about whether to italicize the punctuation that goes with italicized text (the answer is yes), my friend and I wondered about this. I made the font really big and in Palatino it looks ovally. My friend used Times New Roman and described it as not oval, but rather “smaller and more delicate looking.” Typeface and word aficionados could easily while away an entire afternoon doing this. Left side of the internet room, serif; right side, san serif. Get crazy with it, and bonus points for posting the description of what it looks like.
  5. What exactly does “telling tales out of school” mean? As opposed to telling tales “in school”? And why is that OK? What tales are we talking about? Gossip? Literature? Urban legends like alligators in the toilets? Tails? Inquiring minds want to know.
  6. When you go to a bar’s “underwear night” and they say to wear something you could wear out in public and not get arrested, what does that mean? Can you get arrested for wearing actual underwear on the street—say, tighty whities or women’s Hanes? Or a bikini swim suit for that matter? And if so, what is the difference, besides the type of material? I see people wearing their pajamas in public and see through tops, is that also a crime? I mean besides a crime of fashion?

Some these queries like the one about the tree falling in a forest may be unanswerable, but I think it’s still important to ask these piercing questions. After all, isn’t that what education is all about?

Photo note: I mean no disrespect to people who lived, struggled, and died during the Dust Bowl. The image is a good reminder of how lucky  we all are.