The Rules

I graduated from college nearly forty years ago.  So it was with a bit of trepidation that, late last month, I began a Saturday morning Spanish course at Sacramento City College.

Honestly, I thought it would be over before it began.  Even one four-credit course is costly, once you consider tuition, books, parking permit, supplies, and gasoline at $3.16 per gallon.  My hope was that perhaps my employer would pay for it.  Keep in mind that I work for the state government, where red tape is the name of the game.  I was surprised and grateful when I was able to obtain the proper signatures and the paperwork went through.  If I get through successfully, I plan to make the expense well worth the taxpayers’ while.  I hope that this will be the start of an adventure in the Spanish language that leads to certification, enabling me to assist with Spanish interpretation and translation whenever needed.  And I look forward to never again being flummoxed when I answer the phone at my desk and the voice at the other end begins to plaintively ask me for help en español.

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.  For starters, I knew I’d be bidding adíos to lazy Saturday mornings sleeping late.  (Or “sleeping in,” as most people say in California.  I hate that phrase.  Is sleeping in an alternative to sleeping out, as in camping in the backyard?  Even after all these years in California, my first reaction upon hearing the phrase “sleeping in” is always “sleeping in what?”  My PJs?  My skivvies? Hmmm.)

More than hauling myself out of bed at 5:30 a.m. after a week of early rising for work, however, I couldn’t help but wonder what college is like in the new millennium.  I fully expected to see my fellow students arrive in class with their mini-laptops.  That doesn’t faze me.  While I am far removed from the Twitter and Snapchat generation, and lack the depth of tech savvy of my younger peers, I feel confident enough to hold my own in a Spanish class with my old school looseleaf notebook and hard copy textbook.  I planned to study, study, study to pull off that coveted A and make my employer proud.

Surely class participation, tests and homework couldn’t be that different than it was in the 1970s, right?  Pay attention in class, copy down what the professor writes on the board, memorize all the stuff you need to know for the tests — surely the rules haven’t changed that much even since my elementary school days.

Let’s just say that I was in for a bit of a surprise.

First, there was the syllabus presented by the professor on the first day of class.  It was 30 pages long.

One of the pages of the syllabus informs students that a loss of class participation points will result from any of the following in-class responses to questions from the professor:

  • I don’t have the textbook
  • I did not get that far.
  • I did not do that one.
  • Can I do a different one?
  • I did not understand the assignment.
  • The library did not have an available textbook copy.
  • Incoherent/unrelated/random answer.
  • Answers in English/failure to use Spanish.
  • “I don’t know.”
  • I am trying to connect to the eBook.

The last time I recall trying any of these was in sixth grade.  Why is the professor doing this?  Surely no one who has made it to college would stoop to such depths?  This professor must just be trying to show that she’s strict, I decided.  There are always some teachers who like to lay down the law on the first day, right?  Surely such grade school style micromanagement is unnecessary at this stage of education.

During the second class session, I was sadly disappointed.  Nearly every one of the excuses listed in the syllabus was uttered by someone in the class.  With twenty years of teaching experience, clearly this professor knew exactly what she was facing.

What really surprised me, however, was the list of rules I found posted on the wall when I sat down at a study carrel during the class break:


Keep your voices down.

Do not sit on the tables.

No sharing chairs!  Only one person per chair.

Offensive language and bullying is unacceptable.

I was shocked that the college has to call out potty mouths and, um, bullies?  Like on an elementary school playground?  So, like, should I expect a fellow student to shake me down for my lunch money or kick me in the balls?  Whoops, I don’t think you can say “balls.”  Sounds like offensive language to me.  And, um, sharing chairs?  I don’t even want to know!

My junior high school was known as the Panthers, and the similarities are not lost on me.

Just when I thought I’d seen it all, fate conspired to play “Can you top this?” during Saturday’s class.  It was rather warm in the building, and the professor had kept the door propped open to allow air to circulate.  About halfway through class, a skinny young man strolled into the classroom and sat down two desks away from me.  He was wearing no shoes and no shirt.  Kenny Chesney notwithstanding, all of us immediately knew that there was indeed a problem.

“You’re not in this class,” the professor said calmly.  That’s when I noticed that the young man was holding his T-shirt.  It looked filthy.  His body began jerking and shaking as he struggled to put on the shirt.  “Yeah, I am,” he responded.  “I’m late.”

It was fairly obvious that this kid was tweaking.  When he finally got the shirt on, he jumped up out of his seat and ran out of the room.  The professor had to stop the class to call campus security.  I suppose we were all lucky that he didn’t have a weapon.

Welcome to college in 2018.




Lunch Shaming

Cheese Stick

Just when I thought I’d heard everything, I read this week in the Sacramento Bee that there is a thing called “lunch shaming.”  This can take a number of forms, but it involves kids, including little ones in first and second grade, who come to school without a lunch or any money to buy one.  What the school does about this situation varies greatly from one district to another.

Some schools advance the kid the money needed to buy lunch.  Others let the kid go hungry.  Apparently, however, many schools take a middle road in which they provide kids in this predicament with a “basic lunch” such as a cheese sandwich.

The shaming comes in when kids are embarrassed when they don’t get the same hot lunch that their peers are eating but instead are stuck with a bland alternative lunch.  Most of the class may be enjoying pizza and salad, but the hapless kid with no lunch money is given some cheese sticks and crackers or a cheese sandwich.  Some school districts have elected to stop this practice and let the kid have the regular hot lunch.  And here in California, a bill has now been introduced in the state legislature prohibiting schools from providing moneyless students with an alternative lunch.

Interestingly, the Bee article failed to mention the shaming that occurs when a poor kid brings his lunch from home, which turns out to be something sparse — such as a plain cheese sandwich.  When I was in school, eons ago, lots of kids faced this situation and no one thought anything about it.  Of course, the school can’t do anything about that because it has no control of parents who send their kids to school with a crappy lunch.  What they do have control over is what they give those kids who come to school with no lunch at all.  Gee, if I had known about this back in the day, I may have conveniently forgotten to take my brown bag sandwich on a day when the school lunch menu showed something good was being served.

Apparently, the shaming gets worse.  Schools have taken a variety of draconian measures to collect lunch money from parents who fail to load money onto their children’s accounts.  These range from sending letters home with the kid to posting lists on the wall to stamping a kid’s arm with the words “Lunch Money.”

To their credit, many school districts have given up on such tactics in favor of contacting the parent directly via email or phone calls.

So what is causing kids to arrive at school without any lunch or money?  Many parents, of course, are very poor, qualifying their kids for free breakfast and lunch.  The problem is that parents forget to fill out the paperwork necessary for their kids to get on the program.  My guess is that some parents have other things on their minds (like surviving another month) and that others just don’t give a darn.  Then there are those parents who don’t read very well and are unlikely to understand any paperwork set in front of them.

An aspect of this story that particularly fascinated me is the price of a school lunch.  When I was a kid, it was 40 cents.  If we brought a lunch from home, we could buy a half-pint of milk to go with it for four cents.  My parents would keep a penny cup on the dresser in their bedroom, from which we were expected to remember to extract the four pennies necessary to buy milk.  Today, however, the typical price of a school lunch is $2.75.  This is almost a sevenfold increase over the intervening decades.  I can understand parents being unable or unwilling to pay 55 to 60 dollars per month for their kids’ lunches.

So what should the schools do about this situation?  Many say that kids should not be punished for the shortcomings of their parents.  While not depriving kids of food just because their parents make poor choices resonates with me on a visceral level, ultimately the sins of the parents are always visited upon the sons.  Kids cannot be taken away from their parents just because they happened to be born into poor families.  So one way or the other, the kids are the ones who suffer.

I propose that the answer to the “lunch shaming” problem is to provide all schoolkids with free breakfast and lunch.  The feds, state and local governments, and the school districts will have to work out the fiscal arrangements needed to pay for this.  Neither the kids nor the teachers nor the school administrators should ever have to be concerned about whether a student will end up with an inferior lunch or no lunch at all.

As for those who would criticize my “welfare state” attitude, I say hands off the innocents.  Our youngest Americans are our future.  Jeopardizing the future of our nation by tolerating kids who are not prepared to learn because they have nothing to eat is simply unacceptable in the wealthiest nation on earth.


Pursue Growth and Learning

I remember a cartoon posted on the wall of one of my high school classrooms many moons ago.  In it, a boy sits at a man’s feet, apparently the victim of a father-son talk.  “That’s it,” says Dad.  “That’s all I know.”  The sad part is that some are indeed contented with what they know, preferring not to have to learn anything new.  Of course, that cartoon predated the internet by a couple of decades.  With every type of learning opportunity, from webinars to podcasts to MOOCs now available at our fingertips, there is no longer any excuse to be satisfied with what we think we know.  After all, a minute from now what you think you know will no longer be correct.  The only solution is to be a lifelong learner.  How fortunate that employers like Zappos encourage expanding our horizons, resulting in personal growth and increased ability to contribute to both personal and professional success.

Zappos Core Value #5:  Pursue Growth and Learning

My wife’s friend is quite clever.  Although she herself doesn’t enjoy reading, she understands the importance of encouraging her children to read and to maintain a sense of curiosity. Accordingly, when her kids were small, she would walk around with a book as often as possible and sit holding a book even if she weren’t actually reading it.  Her children got the message, and now it is rare for either of them to be seen without a book.  In our age of smart phones and tablets, I find this most amazing.

Indeed, it is true that instilling a passion for knowledge is among the greatest gifts we can give our children.  Growing up, I spent as much time as possible inside a public library.  I consider myself a lifelong learner, which is a distinct advantage in an age in which facts become outdated almost as soon as one learns them.

At work, I encourage my employees to jump on every possible training opportunity, including those not directly related to their current employment.  Whether this means attending a two hour seminar or signing up for a course at the state university, I support it.  If I have to change an employee’s schedule to make this possible, consider it done.  It doesn’t matter what “holes” this creates; we’ll figure out a way to make it work.  Not only is broadening and deepening of knowledge an investment, but it improves an employee’s ability to contribute to our success and increases life satisfaction in general.

I encourage my staff to do outside reading, to look things up online, to figure out how what we do relates to the rest of the world.  In my department, we’re just a little puzzle piece and it helps to have a grip on where we fit in with the big picture.

Back when I first started working in the court system, I discovered that my predecessor had no use for training.  Staff members never went to refresher training and were discouraged from making the three hour round trip from our remote location to the nearest training venue.  I am proud to say that I changed that.  Whenever possible, I would have the subject matter experts come to us.

My people would laugh when I would crook a finger and say “Don’t tell me you already took that training class.  That was ten years ago.  The world is not the same place that it was then.”  It was a novel concept to some of them that checking off a class on the training list didn’t mean that their obligation was forever resolved.

These days, I work in a place where training is decidedly rather hit or miss.  You never know when or if the training class you want will be given, whether you’ll be able to get in due to limited class sizes and whether your manager will allow you the time off to go.  Many of us don’t get a lot of formal training, so I encourage everyone to take the initiative to train themselves.  Thanks to the public library, the internet and the community college, there’s really no excuse to do otherwise.  Yes, I know you have a busy life.  So do I.  It’s all a matter of priorities.

The kind of place where I want to work has a well-stocked library, training that can be accessed online at my convenience, and a management attitude that no learning is ever wasted.  Let me improve myself so that I can improve my contribution to the company.

By the way, I’ve just described Zappos.  I don’t know whether I’ll ever get to work there, but at least I can hold them up as a model of a business that has proven that training and learning are assets we can’t be without rather than liabilities that we can’t afford.  And I am particular impressed with the Z’Apprentice program, in which employees get to try out working in other areas of the company to see whether a good fit exists.  More of that kind of learning, please!

Tomorrow:  Core Value #6 – Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication

NaBloPoMo 2015 Logonanopoblano2015dark

Share and Share Alike

I once worked in an establishment in which one of my fellow managers would sign off nearly every email with the cloying “Sharing is Caring!”  Right after I vomited all over my keyboard, I was always tempted to hit Reply to All and type “I’m diabetic and you’re making me ill!”

You have to wonder whether she was an abused child who grew up feeling the need to excuse herself for living or whether perhaps her toddler left her an unfortunate victim of BTPDO (Barney the Purple Dinosaur Overload).  Either way, someone desperately needed to tell her that communication with one’s fellow managers is an expected part of the job and that there’s no need to make excuses for doing so.  I’m sure others laughed about her behind her back, but no one, myself included, was willing to take her in a padded room and slap her upside the head.

Only years later did I come to understand that:  1. Communication (and the lack thereof) is a really huge issue in the corporate world, and 2. Sharing, whether of ideas or of possessions, is a visceral thing that has roots deep in childhood.

As I don’t have children of my own, I live in a fully adult world and generally think about kids as little as possible.  This started to change somewhat two years ago when my little grandniece was born, and even more so a year ago when my wife and I became one of her regular caregivers.  Now that she’s two years old, her mom decided that she needed to socialize with other kids her age and, after a whole lot of wrangling, managed to get her into a good day care program.  From all accounts, the little one loves it.  There are lots of toys to play with, the teachers actually do teach lessons, and there are plenty of girls and boys to get to know.  She’s even making progress on her potty training, much to the relief of all of us.

Now, I don’t really think that kids of that age need to be “taught” anything.  For one thing, they are natural born sponges who soak up everything they see and hear.  (Uh, watch it with a couple of those words you like to use, dear nephews o’ mine.)  For another, their job is to play and be kids.  There’s plenty of time to teach them academics later on.  Childhood is short enough as it is.

So just what do they teach kids at day care and nursery school anyway?  Mostly the Barney curriculum, from what I hear:  “ABCs and 1-2-3s and how to be a friend.”  Apparently, it’s all about socialization skills.  For example, you’re supposed to learn to say “please” and “thank you.”  Little One has already learned that one at home, and she even says “you’re welcome” regularly.  Not that I give a fig, to be honest.  While displaying the trappings of courtesy may make you well-liked by adults, it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other.  I don’t stand on ceremony and I no more care whether a kid thanks me when I give him a piece of candy than I do whether the bar mitzvah boy writes me a painfully stinted thank you note for his gift.

When I was growing up, I rarely if ever heard my parents say “please” or “thank you” to each other.  (In my mother’s case, I don’t think I ever heard her use those words with anyone.)  Looking back, I guess it makes sense.  Half the time they were too busy screaming at each other to bother with such pleasantries.  Nevertheless, my parents expected their kids to say “please” and “thank you” when we were out in public, and particularly among adults.  They regularly became upset with us when we didn’t, and never seemed to wonder why.

About the time I became a teenager, however, I figured out that most adults were really rather shallow and would hold you in high esteem if you used those stupid words.  So I practiced the pleasantries until I became good at them.  You could have knocked over my junior high assistant principal with a feather when I addressed him as “sir.”  Of course, that may have had something to do with the fact that half the ninth grade was standing out on the front lawn shouting “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your [expletive] war.”

These days, I say “please” and “thank you” about a hundred times a day, both at home and at work, without even thinking about it.  After all these decades, it comes automatically.  My wife and I use those words with each other dozens of times each day, and I must grudgingly admit that this probably does set a good example for the little pipsqueak.

All in all, I guess it’s good that early on my grandniece has learned the words required for entrée into polite society.  Unlike her quacked-up video pals Huey, Dewey and Louie, I doubt that she’ll ever need a copy of The Big Book of Manners.

But then there’s that old bugaboo, the S-word.  No, not the one that my renegade nephews like to use, the other one.  That’s right, “sharing.”

I don’t pretend to be up-to-date on modern theories of child rearing, but it is my understanding that teaching sharing consists primarily of conveying the idea that you can’t hog the toys because the other kids need a chance to play with them, too.  This is a true childhood classic that has been around forever, celebrated by everyone from Dr. Spock to Robert Fulghum.  And I don’t agree with it.

While I don’t particularly care whether or not kids use all those “polite” words (frankly, I think they’re kind of ridiculous), at least I can see how doing so can be a valuable skill in the adult world.  But sharing?  Oh, boy, don’t get me started.

I had to prowl around online a bit to discover what others are saying about sharing, kind of my way of licking my finger and holding it up to test the wind direction, before proceeding to shoot myself in the foot in this space.  What I found is that sentiment seems about evenly divided on the issue.  Some parents require their kids to share their toys, believing that childhood sharing is the gateway to adult generosity.  Others align more closely with my own views that a kid’s things belong to him or her and that he or she should not have to share them with anyone.

I have long believed that the rabid way in which many parents insist that their children share is not for the benefit of the child, but for the benefit of the parents themselves.  Most of us are not wealthy, and if we have two or three children, we may not be able to afford to buy two or three of every toy so that each kid can have his or her own.  After all, kids have short attention spans, so there should be no reason that they can’t take turns playing with their toys.  Kids, unfortunately, do not see things quite this way.  Well, that’s why they have parents, right?  Children are naturally self-absorbed and it is our job as parents to socialize the little brutes.

Yada, yada.  I wish that, just once, I would hear a parent admit that they require their kids to take turns because doing so tends to avoid The Three Plagues:  Temper tantrums, late night trips to the hospital, and social workers.  It would also be lovely to hear a parent admit that she forces her progeny to share because she can’t afford to buy three copies of this fifty dollar piece of dreck that the kid is whining for because it is advertised on TV a million times a day.

I endeavor to make kindness a major part of my life, and I attempt to incorporate that sentiment into everything I say and do.  Nevertheless, I believe that sharing is of very little value to success in adulthood, at least in our American society.  There have to be other ways to teach generosity and kindness (leading by example, for one).

I mean, come on… I am not going to let you share my car, my computer or my cell phone.  (I can hear it now:  “What?! You won’t let someone use your phone to make a call if their phone has gone dead?”  A friend of ours did this at the airport recently and promptly had her bank account cleaned out.)  If you would like to borrow a pair of my pants or one of my shirts, fine.  (If you can fit into them, I feel sorry for you.)  Just bring them back the way you found them, please, freshly washed and on their hangers.

As a child of the Dr. Spock era, I was raised to share.  Everything.  “Share with your sister!”  “Share with your friend!”  “Why don’t you give some to that little boy?”  And so, as an adult, I had to learn the hard way about lending out my things.  It took me a while to figure out that if I’d spot someone a twenty, I’d never see it again.  I lent out my car to Little One’s mom last year and she wrecked it.  My wife and I can’t afford to replace it and have had to learn to make do with one car between us.

If that’s not enough, the creeping crud is going around at work, and I have had it for the past two weeks and am now just barely starting to get over it, thanks to two doctors and two sets of antibiotics.  Do you think I’m going to allow anyone to put his or her grubby, germy little hands all over my things?  I think not!  And neither should you, my dearest grandniece!

I have no control over what they teach you at day care or at home, dear one.  However, you will never see this uncle asking you to share anything of yours.  As for playing with others, no, you can’t take away a toy from another kid because you happen to feel like playing with it right now.  But neither can another kid take away a toy from you when you are playing with it.  And you don’t have to share your cookies with them, either.  They have their own parents (and uncles) to give them treats to take to day care.  What’s that you say?  They’re poor and don’t have any cookies at home?  Uh, well, dear one, I hate to break it to you, but your mommy is a single teenaged mother without two nickels to rub together who is trying to go to school while working the graveyard shift at a drugstore.

I know you’re too young to understand right now, but in our great American society, we have a little thing called “personal property.”  Not every culture embraces this paradigm, but it is very much a central ethos of ours.  If someone breaks into your house or steals your car, we call them a “criminal.”  You will work hard to buy most of your things.  Other things may be given to you in love by those who are close to you.  In either case, you are not required to share them with anyone.  And I, for one, refuse to require you to share as a child when you should not be sharing as an adult.

Now, dear one, if you want to learn the proper way to be generous, carefully observe the work we do here at the church, the homeless people we feed, the random acts of kindness we so enjoy engaging in.  None of that means that you are expected to share with someone just because they ask you to.

Oh, and please do me one favor, dear grandniece.  Never, ever sign your emails “sharing is caring.”  Barney and his sickening “I love you” song notwithstanding.

On Student Loans and Dreams Deferred

Most of us who attend college these days have to take out student loans and then spend years mired in debt, trying to pay off the costs of their education.  I am no exception.

The ironic thing is that I nearly escaped this trap.  I was this close when I blew it.

You could say that I had it made.  My parents were teachers and school administrators for years, were frugal and saved their money, and made it clear that they would pay my college expenses and those of my two sisters.

As you may imagine, education was near and dear to my parents’ hearts.  From earliest age, they planted the seed in our brains that all of us were going directly from high school to college, no two ways about it.  We lived in a solidly middle class enclave, and nearly all the kids with whom we associated at school had similar college plans.  Not college dreams, mind you.  College plans.  We vaguely heard about kids who went to work straight out of high school or who went into the Armed Forces.  For us, however, there was a direct college preparatory path into the halls of academia.

In the case of my sisters and myself, college was far more than an abstract idea or a simple expectation.  From our elementary school days on, we understood what college was all about because we lived it.  My parents were always going to school.  At the age of four, my father bought me a toy typewriter because I wanted to be just like Dad, whom I observed, day after day, typing his master’s thesis on a battered manual typewriter in the corner of our New York City apartment.  When I was in fourth grade (and my sisters were in second grade and kindergarten, respectively), we had a babysitter one night a week so that my parents could run out of their jobs and straight to class.  Now that we lived in the suburbs, the drive to the college was two and a half hours round trip.

Then there were the summer classes.  By the time I was in junior high, my mother was working on her master’s degree and my father was on his way to a sixth year certificate in educational administration.  All of us would wake up at the crack of dawn to head up north to the college.  My sisters and I would amuse ourselves on campus while my parents were in class.  We’d walk the tree-lined paths, chill out in the library, play board games in the student lounges, beg my father for quarters to raid the vending machines.  I would pretend I was a college student by researching topics in history and geography and writing papers on what I had learned.  I thought it was the coolest thing to stretch out beneath a tree with a book.  No one bothered the three of us, and many of the professors recognized us.  “There go the Smith kids.”

One summer, my mother had to take a class in entomology at the college’s field campus in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York.  This was an even longer drive, but at least it was only one day per week.  My father didn’t have a class there, so he would take my sisters swimming in the pond while I, a fat klutz and certified water hater, holed up somewhere with a book.  Back at home, we’d help my mother get a good grade by catching butterflies, grasshoppers and beetles for her to preserve and mount on pins in her insect collection.

I would burst with pride when my mother was doing research in the college library and asked me to find a particular book for her.  Familiar with the Dewey decimal system from our public library, I quickly learned to navigate the college’s Library of Congress cataloguing system.  We watched my mother tip-tap her papers, and eventually her doctoral dissertation, on her Smith-Corona electric typewriter.

College was in my blood.

All three of us ended up attending the State University of New York, paid for in full by mother. (By this time, my parents had begun managing their finances separately — and they’ve now been married for nearly 62 years!)  As my wife frequently reminds me, I had the kind of advantages that many others do not.

After college, I worked for almost seven years before deciding to attend graduate school full-time.  Once again, my mother fully encouraged me in my plans, agreeing to pay for me to attend the best graduate school that I could get into.  Sounds like a dream, right?

For a while, it was.  I embarked on a three-year course of study at a small private college in New England.  There was the tuition, obscenely expensive textbooks, rent, food and the costs of maintaining my car.  My mother paid for all of it.

When I had one year left to go before obtaining my degree, it all fell apart.  A situation developed that I handled badly and from which I have never been able to financially recover.

Here’s how it all went down:  Just after I completed my first year of grad school, my mother accepted a position as superintendent of schools in a tiny school district in upstate New York.  She rented an apartment there and made the eight hour round trip to visit her house near New York City on the weekends.  By the time I finished my second year of grad school, my mother decided that she would like to buy a house in upstate New York and, eventually, retire there.  (She never did, instead retiring to California to be near her grandchildren.)  She planned to purchase a large house that had plenty of room for me to move in with her and that had a separate office wing for me to set up my own business.  Talk about having everything handed to me on a silver platter!

There were just a couple of small problems.  For one thing, I was thirty years old and didn’t want to live with my mother.  And for another, I didn’t want to set up my own business.

Well, you can figure out how this ended up.  I broke the news to my mother that I had other plans, to which she reacted by withdrawing all financial support.  But I still had one year of school left before graduation.  What to do?

The most sensible course of action, I decided, was to quit school, get a job and move on.  This, however, proved to be problematic.  Without the graduate degree, there would be no professional job for me.  I thought I’d go back to working as a typesetter or proofreader, but the economy had tanked and there were no jobs in that field to be found.  I answered every ad in the newspaper for clerical positions, anything on which I could support myself.  I had no luck whatsoever.  The only job I was offered was in fast food at a subminimum wage that would not pay my rent.  And so, as much to avoid homelessness as anything else, I took out student loans to get me through my final year of school.  All these years later, I can still see myself sitting alone in the grad school lobby, agonizing over this decision.

In retrospect, I should have told my mother what she wanted to hear; later, I could have reneged on my promise and there wouldn’t have been much she could have done about it.  But I’ve never operated that way.  I have a thing for honesty that has screwed me over royally more than once.

There were other factors involved as well.  I felt terrible about wasting two years of hard work.  I knew it was now or never, that I’d never be able to cobble together enough courses at night to earn my degree.  Additionally, I was invested in the school’s culture, stupidly being unwilling to leave behind trappings that, in the long run, did not matter at all.  It didn’t help that, at the time, I had a girlfriend who threw histrionic fits at the thought of me living with my mother forever.  If only I’d had half a brain, I would have gotten in my car and driven to Alaska.

In the intervening decades, I have never ceased to regret my decision to take out those student loans.  In the end, I graduated but was never able to find a position in my field anyway.  Eventually, I was able to make my way back to working as a desktop publisher.

I will be paying on those loans for the rest of my life.  My experience has included defaulting on my student loans, having them reinstated at lower interest rates, obtaining forbearance during two periods of unemployment, combining loans, being mercilessly dunned by telephone collectors and having my wages garnished.

Unlike other types of consumer credit, student loans have the distinction of being non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.  If this were not so, it would be easy to attend college for free by taking out large student loans and then declaring bankruptcy upon graduation.  If you are a low-wage worker, you can have your monthly payments lowered (or even temporarily reduced to zero if you become unemployed), but the interest on the amount owed continues to accumulate.  After a while, the compound interest becomes so huge that, short of winning the lottery, most of us can never hope to repay the debt.

One good thing about student loan debt is that it does discharge at the end of the life of the debtor.  The idea, I’ve been told, is that no education is ever wasted and that it is useful in any type of job, even if the student never works in the field in which the degree was conferred.  Because education is not transferable to another, however, the benefit obtained by the money borrowed ends with the death of the borrower.  As I took out my student loans many years before I was married, I alone am responsible for my debt.  It is comforting to know that the debt will be forgiven when I die, and that my wife will not continue to be saddled with payments after my demise.

Considering my difficult experiences with repaying student loans for a single year of education, I can’t imagine what hopelessness must descend upon those who took out loans to finance four to eight years of college.

But I have learned one thing in the process.  Regardless of the mistakes of one’s youth, we must go on.  Sure, we’ve made other financial mistakes over the years.  My wife and I have had our little dances with credit cards.  With the aid of her superb money management skills, however, we have managed to become nearly debt-free without declaring bankruptcy.  I say “nearly,” because those student loans remain.  They will never go away.

It makes me rather sad to hear people say “I can’t do this, I can’t do that…I have student loans, you know.”  One of my favorite bloggers has posted that she is planning to defer or renounce an opportunity to pursue a dream because she would need to stop working for a while and can’t do that with $50,000 of student loans.  I have unsuccessfully urged her to reconsider this decision, reminding her that loan payments can be reduced or suspended.  And when she achieves her dream, those good old loan payments will still be there for her to begin making again.

After all, student loans eventually go away when you die.  And you only live once.

Code is Poetry: Why a Liberal Arts Education is Still Relevant

I keep reading that a liberal arts education is a colossal waste of time and money, that all it’ll get you is unemployed.  This line of thinking holds that what the world of the 21st century needs is computer programmers and health care professionals.  STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) is where it’s at, baby!  Shakespeare is out.  Coding is in!

Colleges and universities have been placed in the prickly position of defending their humanities and social sciences programs against the battering rams of the STEM people.  Don’t say you can’t do anything practical with sociology, literature or philosophy (they tell us).  In today’s market, every job requires excellent critical thinking and communication skills.  Why, you can do anything with these backgrounds!  As in the classical Greek tradition, a broad education steeps students in history and ideas, providing them with a frame of reference for taking on any challenge of modern society.  After all, our statesmen, lawyers, teachers and, yes, artists, have to start somewhere.

I’ve been laughing at a humorous-yet-serious video posted by the English Department of our local college, California State University Chico.  My favorite line is about halfway through the video, where an English student composes a tweet to #imgonnaliveinabox.  Wow, members of the younger generation are afraid that a liberal arts education will doom them to a lifetime of poverty!

Prestigious Stanford University, located in California’s Silicon Valley (and therefore about 150 miles from my home), is known for its computer science and technology programs.  Students come from all over the world to study to become engineers.  And yet, most of Stanford’s professors don’t teach science, math or engineering.  The New York Times reports that 45% of Stanford’s faculty is in the humanities, but only 15% of its students are.

While it must be wonderful for Stanford’s political science or comparative literature students to receive individual attention in small classes, many other colleges are financially unable to keep sparsely-attended liberal arts programs going.  So departments of Romance languages, music and art history fall by the wayside.

Some say good riddance to useless studies (what employer wants to hire an anthropology major?) while others bewail the loss of intellectualism in favor of job preparation.

I think about my own college experience, well over a quarter century ago.  As a freshman, my heart’s desire was to major in theater arts.  Following some wonderful high school experiences both as a thespian and as a student of several teachers who knew how to bring drama alive, I was willing to paint scenery, gather props or do whatever was needed just to soak in the atmosphere of the seniors who surely were headed for Broadway and Hollywood.  Let’s just say that my parents vetoed this misguided notion right off the bat.  They wanted me to major in political science in preparation for law school.  That was all well and good except for one little thing:  I had no desire to attend law school.  But since my parents were paying for my education, political science it was.

At the start of my sophomore year, I transferred to a larger state university, where I learned that it was possible to major in two disciplines rather than just one.  Although I had given up the theater dream, I quickly signed up to double major in English along with political science.  One for my parents, the other for me.

I hadn’t really strayed too far from theater arts; all I had done was move from one liberal arts major to others.

But what I never, ever considered was majoring in a STEM area.  I am grateful that my parents didn’t insist that I study science or math so that I could land a job upon graduation.  They knew that would have been a disaster.  And they never suggested that my choice of college major could affect my ability to support myself.  Why would they have?  Mom may have been a biology major, but Dad was an English major. Both of them earned advanced degrees, went into teaching and eventually became administrators.

Indeed, not everyone is cut out for the STEM disciplines.  Even those so inclined may have a tough time making it through introductory science courses if they attended high school in low income areas where science education may have been sparse.  I took one math class in my freshman year, failed, and graduated without taking another math or science class again.  In the Chico video cited above, one student says “math sucks.”  While I was a bit startled to hear that in this day and age, the sentiment is not far off from my own undergraduate attitude.

Then again, I hit college in the mid-1970s, just in time to witness the tail end of the three Ps:  Petitions, protests and pot.  I wisely stayed away from all of those things.  This was partly out of fear, particularly since I knew that my college had nearly been torn apart during the Vietnam War, and particularly after Kent State.  But the shadow of the early ‘70s still hung over the campus like a pall of pot smoke in mid-decade.  Science and math just didn’t seem all that important.

The start-ups of Silicon Valley were just beginning to heat up during my college days, but this didn’t seem a blip on our radar on the east coast.  The hot major was business administration.  Accounting, marketing and economics textbooks were everywhere.  Arbitrage, anyone?  Wall Street, here we come! Everybody say moooooney!

I had nothing but disdain for that stuff.  It was like another world that had nothing to do with me whatsoever.  In my junior year, my sister joined me at the same institution of higher learning.  She was a STEM gal who breezed through calculus but had a hell of a time getting through freshman English.  She started out majoring in physics, then changed to biology.  Yep, my parents again.  Med school.

But my sister did not attend medical school.  And when I graduated, rather than attend law school I proceeded to spend six years working in a field in which none of my coworkers had more than a high school diploma.  Some took a few classes at the local community college, but most quit before long.

However, it was the early eighties and I saw where things were going.  Slowly but surely, manual processes were being computerized.  When I started my first job out of college, the clerks still used typewriters.  I hadn’t yet heard of Microsoft.  IBM and DEC computers were all the rage in the business world.  No one had a computer at home.  What on earth would you do with it?  And Apple?  That was a little toy computer that the kids used over at the high school.  But Hewlett-Packard peripherals began appearing in our office and I began hearing whispered stories of incredible things going on in places like Sunnyvale, Palo Alto and San José.

I saw that political science and English weren’t going to do it for me.  I needed a do-over.  I began taking night classes in computer science and business.  And yes, I retook that math class I had failed back in freshman year, and this time I earned an A.  Another thing that happened is my discovery that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  I was the one in our office who figured out how to use this stuff called “software” that the company kept purchasing.

Once my sisters married computer engineers and migrated out to Silicon Valley, I began to understand just how badly I had blundered in my education.  Or had I?  Maybe I didn’t know anything about math or science. But at night, I discovered that I could learn to write code.  And during the day, I was the one who wrote the documentation and the reports, the one who could proofread the technical manuscripts we kept receiving in French and Spanish.  I was the one who taught the grammar class.  I became a manager.  And eventually, I even went to law school after all.

I began to understand that STEM and liberal arts are not diametrically opposed, but in fact go hand in hand.  A well-rounded education requires significant exposure to both.  Engineering students go into management and end up giving speeches and writing white papers.  Liberal arts students end up as technical writers at software companies.  Every field needs readers and writers.  So yes, if liberal arts majors are to understand the way phenomena such as text messaging and the internet affect society, they do need to know a little about algorithms and graphical user interfaces.  By the same token, engineers need to know how to construct a proper sentence in the English language, and how to string together a series of such sentences into coherent paragraphs.

I’ll always be in awe of those who have a deep appreciation of things like Linux shell scripting.  But that doesn’t mean that a little bit of Shakespeare, Dickens or T.S. Eliot ever hurt anyone.  After all, how will the computer and biomedical people create our future if they know nothing of our past?

Or, as the magicians at Automattic (the company behind WordPress) like to say, “code is poetry.”



Gopnik, Adam, “Why Teach English?” The New Yorker, August 27, 2013.

Hamman, Kira, “Why STEM Should Care about the Humanities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (The Conversation, April 12, 2013).


Of Fire Drills and Lockdowns

Back when I was in elementary school, about a million years ago, I thought that fire drills were pretty cool.  Not only did they get us out of doing our work for a few minutes, but there was the whole process of the thing.  They were exciting!

I think it was the element of surprise that really got me.  One minute I’d be hunched over my purple math ditto, working through the steps of a long division problem, when suddenly I’d bolt upright upon hearing that jarring Clang! Clang! Clang!

“Alright, everyone grab your coat and line up at the front of the room!” the teacher would announce.  There’d be a mad scramble to tear parkas and hats off hooks.

We were really good at lining up.  After all, we had to do it every day to go to lunch and then again to be dismissed to the school buses.  Lining up was always by size place, with myself and a couple of other shorties leading the way while the two guys who had an early growth spurt and had already passed the six foot mark bringing up the rear.

Lines of students of all ages, from the tiny kindergarteners to the big sixth graders, would stream out of the doors onto the playground.  Each class would gather around its teacher on the blacktop to wait for the all-clear.  Meanwhile, my heart would race with excitement as the clanging continued to scream from the open doors.  But it usually wouldn’t be but a few minutes until the alarm was turned off and all of us were shooed back into the school.

The one type of fire drill that really annoyed me was the one that occurred on the school bus.  The driver would announce the drill and then walk around to the back of the bus and open the emergency exit.  An alarm would sound and we all had to jump off the back of the bus.  As a fat, uncoordinated kid, I had a lot of trouble executing that particular maneuver.  It looked so far down to jump.  And it would hurt my feet when I hit the pavement.  And I might land on my knees.  More than once, a sympathetic bus driver would reach up and lift me down.  God bless them and their hernias!  I hope they had good chiropractors and excellent health coverage.

It never occurred to me that there could actually be a fire or any type of emergency in the school.  We all knew it was just a drill and we enjoyed the excuse to waste some time.

My parents, who grew up during the Second World War, tell stories about enduring air raid drills in elementary school.  All the kids knew how to “duck and cover,” cowering under their desks until the air raid sirens stopped their frightening bellow.

Air raid drills back in the forties were entirely different than the relatively benign fire drills of my own childhood.  With an air raid drill, you never knew if it was for real or not.  My grandfather was an air raid warden who enforced the “lights out” rules at night.  The Japs could try to get us at any time, just like they did in Pearl Harbor.  Even in the sixties, when I started school, the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present and there were therefore yellow air raid shelter signs attached to the outside of schools and many apartment buildings in my native New York City.

In my junior high and high school years, however, we had to deal with a series of bomb threats.  One of the administrators would pull the fire alarm and a couple of thousand of us would roll out of every exit in waves. We’d cross the access road and wait up on the hillsides and athletic fields while the fire engines screamed onto the school grounds and cops with bomb-sniffing dogs roamed the halls, and checking out every classroom, nook and cranny.  This process typically took an hour or more.  It was exciting at first, particularly when a bomb threat caused us to have shortened school periods or to actually lose a couple of class periods entirely.

But then it would happen twice in one week and there’d be yet another bomb threat the next week, and it started to get old.  If it were mid-winter, they wouldn’t pull the fire alarm; it might be below zero and there was no time for everyone to go to their lockers to retrieve their coats.  Instead, one of the assistant principals would make an announcement over the public address system that we were all to proceed to the gym immediately.  It was quite a sight when everyone in the entire school, adults and kids alike, was packed cheek to jowl into the bleachers.

The rumors flew as to why this was happening.  The general consensus was that one or more students were responsible.  Kids were calling in bomb threats from the pay phone, or they didn’t come to school that day and called them in from at home.  (Imagine what could happen today with smart phones!)  We never found out what was going on, but we all knew that the Vietnam War was raging and that there was a certain contingent of the student body who believed that any form of disruption was right and proper under the circumstances.

Today things are different.  The air raid drills of the war years and the bomb threats endured by my fellow baby boomers are long gone.  There is the occasional fire drill, of course, to comply with the law.  But what today’s kids have to put up with is the school lockdown.

In the wake of Columbine and Sandy Hook, the danger these days is not from bombs raining down from the sky or thrown into the cafeteria by war protestors.  No, today we have to worry about the kid who comes to school with a gun or the outsider who breaks into the building, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and murderous intent.

So our children have become accustomed to the teacher locking the door and turning out all the lights while everyone hides as best they can, packed into corners and closets.  It might be nothing or it might be disaster.  One never knows.  Everyone is supposed to be quiet and huddle together.  Kids desiring to send panicked text messages are warned that the light from a cell phone could give them away to a killer.

An article published in the New York Times this week cites the negative psychological effects that school lockdowns have on children.  Kids as young as five and six years old have nightmares about bad men with guns attacking their schools.  At home, brothers and sisters play “lockdown” by hiding or running to the basement at a prearranged signal.

“Some parents wonder whether the trend has laid a backdrop of fear and paranoia across their children’s education,” states the Times article. When I first viewed the article, it was just beginning to receive comments.  Upon my second reading, it had logged 194 of them.

I noticed that the comments were full of the usual indictments of the Second Amendment, pleas for gun control and counterarguments from gun enthusiasts.  Some parents wrote of the futility of huddling in corners and closets, citing the Sandy Hook murders as a product of such “massing.”  Others wrote of the inevitable scarring that results when children are required to exit their schools with their hands on their heads to show that they have no weapons.

Another commenter remarked that children “understand that the fabric of society has worn thin when it comes to school shootings, and that they are on the front lines.”

In other words, today’s schoolchildren understand that they may be in danger at any moment and that neither teachers nor parents can protect them.  Their grandparents’ air raid drills and their parents’ bomb threats are long ago events that may as well be described in history books.  Even the “drop and roll” maneuver and training in the use of fire extinguishers have become quaint anachronisms in the era of mass shootings.

In the age of the lockdown, it is a wonder that children are able to concentrate on their studies long enough to learn anything.  Instead of school being a nurturing, comforting environment, it has become a scary place where the real creeps into their nightmares and their nightmares become real.


I’m Just the Uncle

i can

I never get this thing right.

I’d like to chalk up my failures to the fact that I’m “just” an uncle who doesn’t have the kind of authority and influence that a parent does.  I’d like to credit my shortcomings to the fact that for most of the lives of our nieces and nephews we have lived hundreds of miles away and have been able to show up in person only a few times each year.  When my nascent efforts “fall down go boom” like my little grandniece when she tries to walk across the room, I like to think:  Well, what do you expect, uncle, you don’t know them the way you would have had you been there day in and day out when their personalities were developing.

I make all sorts of excuses.

But the bottom line is that I don’t know the melody to this tune and I’m mouthing the words in the hymnal and doing my best to fake it.

But I guess it’s okay.  After all, I’m just the uncle.

My 17 year old niece and her friend were over here for lunch after church today.  We ordered in Chinese.  My sister-in-law came over with the baby.  I helped my niece with an assignment.  Normal stuff.

My niece’s freshman English professor is requiring her to assemble a portfolio that includes a “career plan.”  She mentioned this a couple of weeks ago and I suggested that it does not have to be a “real” career plan, as it is unreasonable for anyone to expect a college freshman to have the direction of her life mapped out like a FORTRAN flow chart.  (Don’t you love how nicely that reference dates me?)

Then she sat down next and told me the rest of the story.  She is going to state that her career goal is to become a forensic psychologist.  Why?  Because her research found that those in the field typically enjoy a salary of about $59,000 annually.

Um, excuse me?

“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” I began, “but sometimes you go about things backwards.”  My wife shot me a dirty look.  “You should choose a career because it is something you truly enjoy doing, not because of how much it pays,” I continued.

“But I have my daughter to think about,” she responded without missing a beat.  “I have to think about money.”

“Yes, but!”  I began talking with my hands, which is what I tend to do when I am passionate about my subject.  “You’re 17 now, but you won’t be 17 forever.  Before you know it, you’ll be thirty and forty and fifty.  Your daughter will be married and off living somewhere else and what will you be left with then?  Your career has to be for you.”

What I didn’t say was “and I won’t be around to offer you advice then, but perhaps you’ll remember what I said way back when.”

I found it somewhat humorous that my niece thinks that $59,000 is a really excellent salary.  I may be unemployed now, I told her, but when I am working I earn more than that and I’m not a doctor or an arbitrage specialist on Wall Street.

And then you need to think in terms of inflation, I told her.  My middle management jobs pay me more than my mother ever earned, and she has two master’s degrees and a doctorate.  $59,000 today may well translate to $80,000 as you progress in your career.

That’s when my niece dropped the bomb.  “Well, I’m really not sure about forensic psychologist,” she confided, “because I would have to get a doctorate and I really can’t do that.”

Um, say what????

“You can continue your education through a doctoral degree if this is what you really want to do.  Your aunt and I will help you in any way we can.  But please, don’t ever say I can’t.”

girl power

I don’t know where this I can’t stuff comes from, but it frustrates the heck out of me.  Is it a product of feeling beaten down because she is caught between being a teenager and an adult, being yelled at by her mother for not doing her chores while she has her own baby to take care of and term papers to write and physically demanding part-time work to do so that she has a few bucks in her pocket?  Or am I being slapped in the face by the very thing I read so much online about:  That even in this day and age, girls make their way through school being bombarded by the clear message that success in the business world is only for the boys?

This makes me want to tear my hair out.  Arrrrgggghhhh!!!  Where are the Aibileens of this world to tell our girls “you is kind, you is smart, you is important?”

How dare an intelligent young woman like yourself deny your self-worth and unlimited potential?

You don’t often hear me say this, dear niece, but you’re wrong.  You’re dead wrong.

Such demonstrations of lack of self-esteem make me want to explode.  But what else are we to expect when all around us is broadcast the message “You got pregnant in high school, so you can’t.  You have a single mother and you’re poor, so you can’t.  You’re from an ethnic background and you’re a woman, so you can’t.  Don’t hit your head on the glass ceiling on your way out.”

I want to do everything I can to contradict this mentality.  I want you to have confidence in your abilities and to bask in your successes.  I want you to pump your fist and shout at the sky “yes, I can, I can, I can!!”

But I’m just the uncle.  I know what my place is supposed to be, yet I constantly find myself straining against those boundaries.

My dear niece, I know that you haven’t had much in the way of male role models in your life.  You were two years old when I met you, and the next year your father left.  He almost never showed up for his visits and it’s been a long haul of social services and lawyers and courts to extract from him the small amount of child support ordered by the court.  Your mother got remarried, to a man with eight children of his own.  That marriage imploded after a few years; you didn’t really know who to call “Dad.”

Well, my dear, I can’t make up for any of that, and I wouldn’t dream of trying in any event.  I’m just the uncle.

But I’ve tried to set a good example to the best of my ability.  I know you don’t have the financial advantages that I had, but I hope that my academic degrees and the breadth of my knowledge that I am always sharing with you will inspire you to follow me down the path of education and self-enrichment.

Others tell me not to expect too much.

I say phooey!  I expect plenty, my dear niece.  And my number one expectation is, in the immortal words of Shakespeare:  “This, above all, to thine own self be true.”

But what do I know?  I’m just the uncle.


NaBloPoMo November 2013