The Best Way to Retain Teachers: An Ex-Teacher's Perspective on a Disturbing Problem

I have been thinking about this article from the Washington Post all day. It describes how, in Utah, to become a teacher you no longer have to have a teaching credential. Instead, you need a Bachelor's degree in the subject you want to teach.

A rare photo of my classroom

(The only picture I have of myself in my classroom.)

Probably I have been thinking about it because I made the fatal mistake of trying to engage people online who think this is a fantastic idea. "Learning about teaching is pointless" the argument always begins, and then it follows from there. "Because my uncle Tom taught me how to do geometry much better than the geometry/baseball coach I had in high school." "Because pedagogy takes time away from learning about the subject." "Because teaching is something almost anyone can do, so long as they know about their subject."

Now I find myself caught in a frustration loop, arguing with those voices in my head.

Of course, I'm not a teacher anymore. But I did teach, high school English for two years. When I decided to start teaching, I already had a degree in English, but to get my teaching credential, I got another degree, this time in Secondary Ed. (Were I to go back in time, I would just get myself a Master's degree instead of a second Bachelor's; I'm still not sure why I didn't even consider that option.) My English degree taught me about reading, writing, literature, history, grammar, and all things book-related; my secondary ed degree taught me how to teach what I knew to others.

I'd like to think I was a good teacher. I know I was passionate about it. I wanted desperately to teach each of my students several things: to love books, to write well, and to integrate literary thinking into their lives. I spent hours during my two years of teaching working on lesson plans. When I graded essays, I had a green pen in my hand, which I used to correct grammar and usage errors, write encouraging comments, and leave a final thought (on every assignment I gave). You can’t teach writing well without the comments and the corrections, but it takes so much time, especially when you’re grading 75, 100, 150 papers. I ran on caffeine and sugar and not much else during those years; I gained weight and I got wrinkles and prematurely grey hair. I loved teaching—but I was entirely overwhelmed by it. It consumed my life. I didn't go to church, or to family parties, or to my kids' activities. I just worked on my school stuff because I had to stay on top of it. If I didn't do it, who would?

And I did all of that work on a salary that would qualify me for food stamps.

Two years was all I could manage.

The Washington Post article says that "Education officials in [Utah] have been trying to figure out why 2 in 5 teachers leave the state’s public schools within five years."

Really? They can't have been trying very hard. Because their solution—let's hire people who don't know how to teach!—fails miserably at solving the problem. Their "solution" only tries to make it easier for people to become​ teachers, not to continue teaching, thereby underlining the idea that "qualified teachers" aren't the point, just bodies in the front of the classroom.

The process of becoming a teacher isn't the hard part. The hard part is continuing to teach for more than a few years.

Why do so many teachers leave the profession within five years?

Some of it is​ because of the pay scale. But if you dare suggest that teachers are underpaid, the reaction is swift: teachers should teach because they love their subject, because they love teaching, because they have the power to influence young lives. All of that is true, of course, but it is also beside the point. What other career requires people to be paid in encouragement and gratitude? And then there’s the always-popular response: But teachers only work nine months out of the year! Actually, what teachers do is squish twelve months (or more) of work into nine months.

It goes deeper than the pay scale, though. It’s also the working conditions, the run-down classrooms and ancient desks, the computer labs filled with painfully slow machines, the always-dirty floors. It’s the overwhelming classroom size. It’s the demand that if you want, say, whiteboard markers, then you know where Staples is. It’s the fact that technically, there is almost no time in the day for a teacher to use the bathroom. It’s the relentless, looming reminder of testing. And it is the overwhelming feeling that it is always the teacher’s fault when students don’t fulfill their potential.

And yet—we still love it. At least, I did. I loved being with students and trying to ignite their excitement, trying to encourage them to think broadly and objectively, trying to help them see how using the correct word might be the thing that gets them ahead in the world. I loved preparing lessons. I even loved the moments when, grading papers, I’d find a clever phrase or a thoughtful metaphor and think yes! Here! This student is learning! I would go back to teaching in a heartbeat—if they doubled the salary and required me to teach two classes a day instead of three. (Which will never happen, of course. Especially in Utah.)

Not anyone can be a teacher, and yes: pedagogy doesn’t save the world from apathetic, careless, or downright bad teachers. But here is what I know: I learned as much as I could about teaching before I got into the classroom. I worked my butt off during my student teaching experience and absorbed everything I could from my mentors. I was passionate about my subject and I put everything I could into my classroom.

But I only managed to teach for two years.

And I still feel like I failed as a teacher. Because I couldn’t endure, because it became too much, because I could see how I could give everything to it and it would still want more, because to be a halfway-decent teacher I would always be a horrible mother. Because I couldn’t thrive in a broken system.

Utah’s education officials have been trying to figure out how to retain teachers. Their solution is to throw unprepared people into a system that can’t keep the people who are prepared. That’s not even a bandaid. That’s a bomb.

Instead, Utah—the entire nation, really—needs to fix the system itself. If the state wants to retain teachers, it needs to create a working environment that bolsters and rewards, not drains and decimates educators. And it can’t only start with politicians. It needs to start with parents. What if every single parent in the state wrote a letter, demanding that their children’s teachers be given better working conditions? These parents need not be motivated by altruistic measures. They don’t need to care about the teachers at all. They need to care about their very own children, and realize that they will receive better education from teachers who are nurtured instead of drained by the system.

The solution to retaining teachers is not as complicated as Utah is making it. If the states want to retain teachers, they must create conditions that encourage teachers to continue teaching. The teachers would benefit—but even more importantly, the students would benefit. Until that happens, teachers and students will continue to suffer.

What "Make America Great" Means to Me

The display shelves in a library are a way we librarians promote books for different reasons. We put books there to help draw attention to forgotten gems, to inspire someone to read something they might not otherwise, to winnow selection down from what might be an overwhelming choice. In my library, we have displays based on genre in fiction and on topic in non-fiction. We also have staff displays, where each librarian has a shelf to put out books he or she loves; filling my staff display shelf is one of my favorite parts of my job, and I think we each unknowingly have little fan bases who check our shelves first before wandering the rest of the library. Throughout the library there are also new book displays, where we put (YES!) new books.

Display text

A few weeks ago, a patron noticed that our non-fiction new book display had a grouping of books that shared a similar theme. There was one about common core, one about Gloria Steinem, one called The Essential Bernie Sanders. Two about Jesus: Rescuing Jesus is about how Christianity is changing to become more progressive and inclusive, while Jesus Behaving Badly attempts to look at Christ through an objective lens (was He a revolutionary? was He racist?).  Perhaps the two scariest books were Atmosphere of Hope, which discusses possible solutions to the climate change crisis, and What is Islam, which discusses how “Muslims have historically conceived of and lived with Islam as norms and truths that are at once contradictory yet coherent.”

This patron took a picture of these objectionable books and then posted it on her Facebook page. She felt driven to drawn public awareness to the biased, left-wing, ultra-radical ideals of the Library. Then, just to make sure we were all aware, she posted the picture to the library’s Facebook page, along with a link to all of the comments and objections her friends had made.

Reading these threads, I was stunned. Absolutely, jaw-droppingly stunned.

And not just by her failure to understand the concept of a “new book” display. Or to see the humor in it—it’s kind of funny that so many “left wing” books ended up next to each other on a shelf which is essentially random on everything other than publication date. She somehow got the idea that the new book display was managed by one specific librarian (who her friends called illiterate) who is obviously trying to poison and control the minds of all thinking people who come to the library. And sure, the general population might not understand that there are many librarians responsible for buying new books, not just one. Nor that we take our jobs seriously, and that one of our roles is to represent modes of thinking that reflect a wide array of people, not just one group. But there is a sign, a very large sign, right on the top of the display, that reads “new books.” It doesn’t say “our communist ideals” or “liberal forever!” It just says “new books.” 

No, what stunned me was the response of her friends.

One commenter said the books about Jesus were written by anti-Christs. Another said that the “anti-Christian and pro-Muslim, pro-feminism pro-communist and pro-climate-scam” display must have been put together by Obama. Several said something along the lines of “I no longer go to the public library because the books there are wicked.” Many suggested doing something to make the books unavailable for anyone to check out (scatter them around the library on the wrong shelves, check them out and then don’t return them for as long as possible, hide them behind other books).

Only their tone suggested burning them.

I didn’t know.

I really didn’t know that people like this truly exist. Don’t all people instinctively understand that society cannot only be made of one way of thinking? Or is it just that I choose to surround myself with more open-minded individuals?

Maybe it’s just that I don’t think I could stand to be friends with such close-minded people. I don’t know if that, ironically, makes me close minded. But I couldn’t ever find common ground with someone who fails to understand that there is a variety of ways of thinking about the world. Or that objectivity helps you to see things more clearly—yes, even Jesus (whom I love). Climate-change deniers make me almost unbearably angry; the argument is so head-in-the-sand asinine that, all apologies, if you seriously feel that way I’m not going to hang out with you. Not even on Facebook.

Even more inexcusable to me is the blatant judging-a-book-by-its-cover in their responses. None of them know anything about the books, other than the covers. None of them would have likely bothered to even pick one up, read its cover copy, and think about its premise. I don’t understand this way of thinking, this refusal to look at anything other than the surface of things. To me, it is built on fear. If, for example, I really believed that climate change was a hoax, created by…well, I don’t know who is benefiting from this supposed hoax, or what they are gaining, but will go with that nebulous “someone” getting “something” from it…if I truly believed that, why would I be afraid to read someone else’s point of view? In fact, wouldn’t I want to read it, so I could have more points to discredit?

It is only when one’s belief or way of thinking is shaky that one is afraid of looking at different perspectives.

If I have learned one thing from being a librarian, it is this: a book is “good” or “bad” based only on individual readers. This is why we need many books with many different perspectives. The people on that Facebook thread are too narrowly defining what makes a “good” book: to them, the only good book is the one that reflects back what they already think. Everything else is bad, and as they are certain of it, their job now is to protect anyone else from reading such “bad” books. Because everyone else must think exactly like they think.

I stewed about that Facebook thread all day. I composed spiteful, sarcastic responses in my head; only my professionalism kept me from posting one. Then I went home and told Kendell about it, who laughed at the shallow thinking and reminded me that I can’t change them. People think what they think.

But oh, how I want to change them.

Because as the night went on—the night of Utah’s caucuses—I started equating the people in that Facebook thread, their vitriol and their fear, their narrow-mindedness and their surety that theirs is the only right way of being, with the supporters of Donald Trump. Doesn’t his slogan “make America great again” have to do with one answer? By “great” I think he means how it used to be in, say, the 40s or 50s, when American society was dominated by rich white men. When women were mostly in their rightful place—at home with the children—while men ruled the world. When black people knew their place, when Hispanics stayed on the other side of the border, when gay people kept themselves properly hidden. When handicapped people were the brunt of jokes.

“Great again” is a return to when the world made sense to one specific group of people, and the voters who support Trump want that world back. It hinges on the word “again”; it wants to go backward instead of forward.

They want singularity instead of multitudes. They want one way of being and everyone else can bugger off. They want the stereotype of “American citizen” to be the only American citizen.

They want one answer to be the only answer.

Deep down, that way of thinking doesn’t only disturb and anger me. It terrifies me. It reminds me of something Margaret Atwood said about utopias: “A union was a Utopian idea. So was Nazi Germany. So was Cambodia. And there’s a whole list of them, of people who thought, ‘Well, we have to build the perfect society, and we know what it’s like, but there’s a catch—we have to eliminate a bunch of people first, because they’re getting in the way.’”

An ideal society cannot be perfect, because “perfect” requires a single way of being right. An ideal society requires multiplicity. It requires messiness and upheaval and clashing ideas. Only one idea—that way lies genocide.

I think multiplicity is equally terrifying to some, because yes: our current way of being isn’t simple, old-fashioned American whatever. Living in a society with multiple mores requires that you understand your own mores. It means your ideas and beliefs will be challenged. It demands that you be flexible and open and even loving and accepting. It means becoming comfortable with the fact that your way of being is not the only way.

It’s challenging.

But it is also glorious.

It means that happiness, success, or goodness aren’t achieved by only one route—and that means more access to happiness, success, and goodness. It means that if you are afraid of feminism, you can continue being afraid of it because no one can take that fear away from you. It also means that I am free to continue believing in and promoting feminism. When we narrow ourselves to only one way of thinking, we remove other avenues to understanding and knowledge.

I want American to move forward in being great. Not to go backward to some idealized version of greatness. To something sanitized and monochromatic and very, very white. I think our greatness lies within our multitudinous aspect. We have always been a country of migrants, it’s just that now, the migrants are no longer white Europeans. Our greatness lies—or, it can if we allow it—in our ability to see things in many different ways.

Our greatness is found in libraries, where yes: we have left-wing books. We also have right wing, and moderate. We have books with completely whack-a-doodle theories, but if that’s your thing, it’s there for you. If your thing is bodice-rippers, if your thing is gentle fiction, if your thing is art history or wicca or crocheting with dog hair, it's there for you. My thing—literary novels, and poetry, and essays, and writing about women’s rights, and memoirs and how-to-run-well and quilting and gardening—my thing is there, too. That they are all in the same library, that they may even lean upon each other on the shelves: the fact that more than one way of thinking exists doesn’t damage any individual way of thinking.

Maybe libraries themselves are a metaphor for America’s greatness: a collection of many different ideas. As a librarian, part of my work is making sure that all of the ideas are accessible. As a citizen, part of my work is respecting the varieties of our communities. That is a greatness that Trump and his followers, that the commenters on that Facebook thread, are terrified of. Their narrow ideals would shape us into something equally narrow, rigid and unyielding. The very opposite of greatness.

This Feels Personal

I remember the first time I heard a library patron say something like this: "Oh, I never buy any books. Why would I when they are free at the library?"

I was, I confess, stunned. Sure: they are free at the library. I suppose it makes a sort of financial sense, if you are able to overlook the intrinsic immorality of not supporting writers and other creative folk. But really it was the tone of the statement, a sort of bragging. As if there are extra points awarded if you make it to the end of your life without ever having purchased a book.

That bothered me for awhile, until I heard it repeated (in different variations) enough times to realize: people want something for nothing.

This year, the town I both live in and work for had an excruciatingly important election. We were voting for a new mayor, three city council positions, and two tax issues. One of the tax issues was simply to continue the Care Tax, which helps fund arts in our town. The second was a increase in property tax that would help the city actually, you know, run.

I'm so disappointed this morning by the results that I could cry.

Actually I have cried.

First off, the mayor who was voted in is a man with a proven track record of dishonesty and incompetence. Not to mention the fact that he is cronies with the one city council member who is sheer poison.

Second, the property tax increase did not pass.

I don't know which fact is going to be worse for my town.

But to me, even knowing that people want to get something for nothing, this feels personal. It feels like the entire city cast a vote against me.

Because I don't only live here, I work here. I go to the library for twenty hours a week, and I help people. I help them find books to read, I teach them how to download e-books to their Kindles, I show them how to find print sources for their children's research paper. I find sheet music for them to use at funerals. I arrange for them to have books to use for their book groups. I look up strange information like, what size is the largest flat screen TV on the market? I show them how to use the Internet and a word processor, how to download a file from their e-mail and start their Facebook account. I listen to them complain, I give them advice, I sometimes even get teary-eyed for them.

I field their endless complaints about the naked statue in the south wing.

I've done this work for just five and a half years now. I work with many people who have done it for decades. And I love my job. I love it. But there is also the fact that in five and a half years, I haven't ever had a raise. I've worked harder, though, as we've lost employees to attrition who have never been replaced. When I started working at the library, there were nine people in our department staff meetings; now there are five.

And the library isn't the only department that is hurting.

The absolute, real truth is that the city has cut as much of its spending as possible, and the tax increase would've helped to turn things around a bit. The candidate who was elected as the mayor turned this into a diatribe about debt and Utopia (the high-speed Internet wiring infrastructure the city is installing), making it seem that something other than raising taxes could be done.

Well, in a sense, he is right.

The other thing that can be done is to cut services.

But think of how all of those get-something-for-nothing people are going to complain when the free services go away.

Because you really can't get anything for nothing. There is no magical money fairy who will pay for things like city parks and their upkeep, and road surfacing, and street lights, and yes: a fairly amazing library. Hoping or praying won't make the money just appear. If people want those things, the money must come from somewhere, and it is no longer coming, enough, from city expansion and sales taxes.

It must come from the citizens, and the ridiculous thing? Taxes on an average house would've gone up about $8 a month. EIGHT dollars. Less than you'd pay if you bought a new novel every month. (Like that would ever happen.)

But this is what most people voted for. Except for the majority of the town—which didn't bother to vote at all.

I'm disgusted by the stupidity.

And I am, to put it bluntly, sad.

Because those same people who cast a vote for dishonesty, incompetence, and drama-mongering are still going to show up at the library. They are still going to ask for my help. They just don't value it enough to actually pay for it.

And I know. I know there are people who will say "Well, just find another job." (I had a meltdown this morning, right over the peanut butter sandwiches I was making, when my actual, real, live husband suggested that.) "I love my job," I could respond, but it is more than that. It isn't only about the fact that I love having a job where I get to talk about books, write about books, handle books, where I help people find the stories that will influence how they think and what they teach their kids and how they implement their faith.

It's bigger than me.

It's that I believe in libraries, and in librarians. It's that I think I'm fairly decent at my job, and I know the people I work with are brilliant at it. It's that I think every community deserves a library staffed with intelligent, responsive librarians—and that those librarians deserve to be compensated for their work.

Should the fact that we love our jobs mean that we shouldn't be paid a fair wage?

(The only reason, quite frankly, that I am able to work at the library is because of Kendell's job. If I had to support us on my own, I would qualify for food stamps on my salary. And I have two college degrees!)

This is one of the big reasons I left teaching: because it devoured all of my time and my soul, and yet I still didn't have enough money to pay for ballet classes.

Working as a librarian doesn't devour my soul, but it doesn't financially support me, either.

It has emotionally supported me, though. But now I don't know if that is enough—because the community I work for doesn't really appreciate it.

And realizing, this morning when I read the election results, that the community I live in doesn't value the work I do?

Yes, it feels personal.

Looking for Peace in the Midst of Bitterness

(Please note: this is a political post with my political opinions, which are not meant to offend you. I'm just sharing what I think, not judging you for what you think. Politics aside, there is a recipe at the bottom of the post!)

Last night I fell asleep at 9:15. Partly this was the time change catching up to me, but mostly it was because I couldn't bear listening to the election results. But I still woke up with an anxious heart and a troubled mind. Today felt to me, in fact, like doomsday. Or at least, the beginning of the end of something.

I wasn't blind to Mitt Romney's faults. I think he should have chosen a different vice president, preferably a woman. (It's best not to get me started on the Republican perspective on women.) I think he comes from the filthy rich perspective and his environmental ideas are reprehensible. But I also think he is motivated by a moral compass. I don't say that because we happen to share the same religion, but because I felt like he earnestly and truly wanted to make America better.

I don't feel that way about Obama.

I think his environmental policies are better than Romney's (but still need vast improvements urgently). I think the Democratic perspective on women is one that goes along with the 21st century. I think his foreign policy is laughable and will have a world-wide impact for decades to come. Every time he promised to make more jobs I felt like screaming from my frustration—how does government create jobs? His handling of the economy couldn't be worse, and Obamacare? Obamacare will, in my opinion, become the cancer of the middle class.

Sure, the cost will sting a bit for the wealthy, but hello: they are wealthy. They will feel it less than the middle class. I don't believe health insurance should be managed or provided by the government. I think it should be provided by employers and be managed by insurance companies; I think government's role in health insurance should be to oversee (to insist upon) reform. (I do know that there are plenty of people who legitimately need assistance with health care. I have needed it before myself. But I think it should be a temporary thing, not a lifestyle choice.)

I also don't understand why insurance should be free. Didn't we learn in kindergarten that nothing is free? Someone will have to pay for Obamacare, and it will be middle-class people like you and me. People at Kendell's job are already talking about how, when we re-enroll in our health insurance next spring, the price increase will be unbearable. Couple that with the increase in taxes and the lack of pay raises and I am already starting to worry that I'll have to find a different, full-time job. All of which might sound like I don't want to help other people who are less fortunate than me, which isn't true; I do. I just don't think that Obamacare is the direction the help needs to take.

But what bothers me more than Obama's policies is his moral center. To me, it feels like he wants to be president because he likes the power and the fame, not because he wants to shape a strong, contemporary America. To me, the American he's shaping isn't even America anymore. It's more socialist than democratic and much more vulnerable. Couple that vulnerability with Obama's failures abroad (the Benghazi thing, the Israel thing) and it starts to feel nefarious.

I don't trust him and I don't think he has made my life better.

So today was a hard day for me. The ruthless gloating, the news pundits going on and on about Romney and how weak his campaign was. "But he won 49% of the popular vote!" I kept arguing back to the radio, "which means almost exactly half of the population wanted him to win." But mostly, it was the relentless anxiety and the knowledge that I am powerless to change any of these things.

So I searched for something to appease my anxiety. I scrapbooked. I went running. I ate the rest of the cake I made yesterday for work. I wandered around Target and bought some clearance Halloween stuff and some peppermint extra-dark-chocolate Lindt truffles (I am eating one right now as I write this in fact). I put away all of my Halloween decorations and got out all my Thanksgiving ones and repotted three of my plants and reorganized my linen closet and put together a big box of stuff to take to the thrift store and vacuumed the cobwebs off of my front-room ceiling. I listened to Kaleb talk while I cooked dinner.

I cooked dinner.

And, despite the other anxiety today brought (Kaleb's echo for his upcoming appointment with the cardiologist and all the accompanying terror that brings even though he's likely to be just fine), my little efforts at finding peace in my heart helped—a little bit. I don't feel any more optimistic about our future. But I do feel grateful that, for now, I have control of my home and my influence over my family at least.

Here's what I made for dinner. It's become a recent favorite at our house:

Buffalo Chicken Taquitos (adapted from Real Women of Philadelphia)

4 cups chicken, cooked and shredded (about 3 breasts)
12 soft-taco sized flour tortillas
2 cups monterey jack cheese, grated
4 ounces cream cheese
1/3 cup Frank’s hot sauce
1/3 cup milk
1/4 cup bleu cheese crumbles
2 T butter
1 tsp Lawry's seasoning
1 tsp garlic powder
2 T vegetable oil

(I doubled this recipe and have some leftover taquitos.)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spread a thin layer of oil over a cookie sheet. Over medium low heat, melt butter. Add Lawry's and garlic powder. Stir to combine and cook for 1 minute. Add cream cheese and stir until melted and completely combined with butter and spices. Whisk in hot sauce, bleu cheese, and milk then simmer for about five minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Combine chicken and sauce. Lay out a tortilla; fill with 1/3 cup chicken and a sprinkling of cheese. Tightly roll up taquito and place, seam down, on the oiled baking sheet; repeat until chicken is gone. Brush taquitos with vegetable oil on the top. Bake for about 10-12 minutes, then flip the taquitos over and let bake until golden brown. Serve with bleu cheese dressing (or sour cream & salsa if you're Kendell).

on Voting

Last week our city held early voting in the city building, which is attached to the library. I loved that week. With people waiting in line for so long (sometimes 2+ hours) to vote, there was an enormous increase of people in the library. A busy library makes me happy because honestly, it's sometimes not busy enough, which makes me sad (because we have a great library) and anxious (because I want to keep working here). 

But it also made me a little bit sardonic. Because every time I needed to walk into the city side of the building, a line from a Sheryl Crow song would start repeating itself in my head:

The good people of the world are washing their cars on their lunch breaks, hosing and scrubbing the best they can in skirts and suits.

I know. That's weird, right? But it also makes sense in my head. Because it just seems so passionately good, voting early. Not waiting for the last minute because seriously, how do you decide? It made me feel a little bit jaded, looking at all those earnest voters. "Really?" I wanted to ask them. "Really? You really believe what any politician says enough to stand in line and then cast your vote?"

Because honestly: there are only a few things I believe that politicians will do. Like I totally believe Romney when he says that he's going to "open up" America's natural resources. YES! Bring on the fracking-induced poisoning, I can't wait for that. Great choice! And I absolutely believe Obama when he says he wants to continue "moving forward." More debt! Sign me up!

But the good things they're all promising to deliver? I don't believe them.

I’m not really sure what’s happened to me. In previous elections I’ve been, if not an early voter, at least a hopeful one. With this election? I’m not hopeful. I’m stripped of hopeful. And that, apparently, makes me feel cynical. Cynical and exhausted.

I just don’t have the energy of those hopeful early voters. I know: voting is my civic duty. It is a privilege. It should make me feel powerful, but it really makes me feel voiceless. Neither of the candidates want to take my country in a direction I want it to go. For me, voting (and I will vote tomorrow, regardless of my political malaise) doesn’t feel like choosing anything other than which path we will take into our own destruction.

Filthy Rich

A few weeks ago, the friend of a friend called me a bigot in a Facebook thread. Obviously this little jibe has stuck in my throat because almost two months later it's still bothering me. This happened in a discussion about THIS ARTICLE, which describes Mitt Romney's charitable acts. Don't get me wrong: I am grateful that he is one of those charitable sorts of ridiculously wealthy men. More ridiculously wealthy men should be like him.

But I don't think the fact that he is ready and willing to help those less fortunate than him (all 99% of America) negates the other fact: he is filthy rich. It was that term, in fact, that caused the "bigot" label to be stuck on me. In my comment, I was trying to point out a contrast I've actually previously written about: the difference between sympathy and empathy. Of course Mitt can sympathize with those of us who have actually had to worry about how we'll make our mortage payments or manage to pay off that looming medical bill. He probably feels sorry for us. He can (and does!) reach into his pocket and help people out. But he will never, ever be able to empathize. He will never be able to know how it feels to be filled with the terror of a very-real prospect of losing everything. Or even the less-dramatic moments, like when losing $100 feels like the end of the world . The sting of a dentist's bill or the derailment that happens when a car breaks down or the washing machine needs to be replaced.

He can have sympathy for us poor working schmucks but he will never have empathy because he has never been in our shoes. 

"But does that mean that only a person from a working-class upbringing would make a good president?" my friend asked. (I imagine she was trying to smooth out the bigoted wrinkles.) Of course not. There is an argument to be made about a man who runs his business so well that he's achieved that sort of wealth. A brilliant financial mind is something our country obviously desperately needs. And really, we don't want someone ordinary to be our president. We want someone extraordinary, right?

"But does his wealth mean he can't relate to average Americans?" she pushed me further. (Can you tell she is a teacher?) Most of me immediately says yes, it does. The problems and troubles of an average American have never been his problems and troubles, so how can he know how to help? Of course, that's not allowing for the power of either sympathy or imagination, which is what the very smallest part of my response builds on, the part that says no, his wealth doesn't keep him from relating because we are all, wealthy or not, still human beings.

To my mind, that article extolling Romney's financial graciousness is an attempt to make him seem like he's more like me. More like your average American, willing to step in and help out his neighbor. All of which makes me think, really? Really? Mitt Romney (and, frankly, nearly any politician I can imagine) is nothing like me. If I had any extra, I'd be willing to put down money on the fact that he's never wondered about his worth when he's looked at the contrast between himself and others. (I've been known to feel like wealthy people must be more deserving of the abundance they have, as if financial status is proof that all of life is us playing a big round of sibling rivalry, with God giving the most to the people he loves best. Even though I don't really think it works that way. Usually.) He hasn't agonized over how to pay for college for his kids or worried that the pressure to get good grades (and thus qualify for scholarships) might be breaking them with unforseen consequences. He's never gotten a stomach ache over spending too much at Walmart.

Or probably even shopped at Walmart.

The solutions to my problems are things like "maybe I should go back to work full time" or "what expenses can I cut from _____ so I can pay for _______?" The solutions to his problems are things like "the cabin on the Canadian shores of Lake Huron" and "let's just build an elevator for all the cars." How could a person like that ever relate to me? 

I stand by my label of "filthy rich," however, and its implications that it is somehow morally wrong for a person to be wealthy. I do that within the context of the label that stranger gave me: bigotry. A bigoted person is one who is "biased beforehand" or, in other words, makes a decision based on a lack of knowledge; the bigoted are "obstinately and blindly attached or unreasonably devoted to some creed, opinion, or party" and are "intolerant towards other groups." (At least, that's the part of the OED definition that applies.) Another good definition is this one: "a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance" (from Merriam Webster). Calling the term "filthy rich" bigoted is implying that the wealthy are a racial or ethnic group that needs protection from hatred or intolerance. I suppose I missed the politically-correct meeting wherein we all decided that the wealthy are a minority group? Or that my bitterness about not being in with the wealthy means I have hatred for them?

But deeper and more important than political correctness is that I am not basing my "filthy rich" label on a lack of knowledge. In my own life experiences I have met plenty of wealthy people who believe their wealth makes them better than others. They spend on themselves without regard for others. I'm also not blindly attached to that knowledge, as I'll readily admit I know a few wealthy people who don't let it go to their heads and who do good things with their money. Does that make me intolerant towards the wealthy? Perhaps, but I don't think so, and here's why: it isn't such a clean dividing line between wealthy and poor. Mitt Romney might be the candidate with gobs of money, but the 80% of us Americans who don't live below or very near to the poverty line are also complicit. I don't have an elevator for my cars, but I am still filthy rich. I have an air-conditioned home with food in the cupboards. My children all have shoes and sweatshirts and toothbrushes. We have a computer and a TV and cell phones, a health insurance plan and a green and grassy yard with shade trees and flowers and birds, while 20% of our population doesn't, and then when you stop to consider the rest of the entire world it all just seems impossibly screwed up.

I don't know what the answer is to our financial problems. I know I believe in working for what you need (a fishing pole instead of a fish), not getting government handouts. I also believe it is immoral that people are struggling with poverty and homelessness and hunger while others live the fabulous life. Maybe it isn't a problem that can be solved by humanity. I am hopeful that, despite their wealth and how it makes them unable to relate to the average American, politicians might figure something out. But I also know this without question:

We are (almost) all of us filthy rich.

on being a Working Mother

There has been much political uproar lately about a comment made by someone named Hilary Rosen about Ann Romney. (You can read more about it HERE if you want.) As I am thoroughly sick of politics and find, frankly, that both sides (Democrat and  Republican) come across hollow, the fact that I am blogging about this at all speaks volumes to how it impacted me.

Ms. Rosen stated that Ms. Romney (who has been a stay-at-home mom) has "never actually worked a day in her life," and that as such she is unable to offer her husband advice about women's economic issues.

This idea both offended me and, I confess, made me nod my head just a little bit in agreement. But first I have to explain why.

While I always yearned to be a stay-at-home mom, I never actually managed to do so for very long. I went back to work eight weeks after Haley was born because at that point we still needed my income to cover our bills. But a few months later, Kendell switched departments and got a raise, and I was laid off and got a severance package, both of which combined to mean that I could choose, finally, to stay at home with my sweet baby girl.

Which I did until May, just after she turned one. You see, being laid off meant I could qualify for a job-retraining grant. I could go back to school and it would be paid for. And as much as I longed to be a stay-at-home mom, I also still wanted to accomplish my long-held goal of graduating from college. Did being a student and not working at a job mean I was a stay-at-home mom? Only sort of. I found an in-home daycare where Haley was happy while I went to my classes during the day. I scheduled them as tightly as possible so that I could be at home as much as possible. Nearly all my homework I did in the late evenings after she went to bed.

During the 2 1/2 years it took me to finish my degree, I got pregnant with Jake, had him, took a semester off, went back for my last year, and got pregnant with Nathan during my last semester (you know...the one I took 21 credits so I could finish before my grant ended). I tried not to ask anyone for help, not my husband or my mom or my sisters or my friends. After all, I had chosen to work on my degree. I had a gut-deep certainty that we would all be glad I was doing it and blessed by my efforts, but I also did it because *I* wanted to learn. By the time I was done, I was proud—but tired. Tired of juggling. Tired of late nights. Tired of having to say "maybe tomorrow" because I had to balance taking care of the house and the laundry and the meals with my children's needs and my homework.

I was so, so happy to be a stay-at-home mom! I loved everything about it, even the six-week stretch of chicken pox just before Christmas.

Except, my happiness only lasted for about 18 months, because just before Nathan turned one our world got dumped upside down when Kendell was laid off. During the next 15 months, I was still a stay-at-home mom. But those were dark, dark days and finally, when I was simply too desperate to keep going along like we were, I decided to go back to school so I could get my teaching certificate.

I think I bawled on the drive to school every day for an entire month.

And it was even worse for me when I started teaching. In my heart of hearts, what I wanted the most was to stay at home with my little ones. What my life was forcing me to do was to leave them in order to provide for them. It made me bitter and sad and confused. All of my other friends, whose husbands had never been laid off, got to continue being stay-at-home moms. They also did things like go shopping together for new boots, or get their hair colored, or buy new purses.

It didn't seem fair.

One night during the first year I was teaching, I was riding back home with three of these friends after we had all played Bunco together. Somehow the talk turned to the fact that schools in places with higher incomes are much better equipped than schools in places with lower incomes. To me, this seemed patently wrong. Why should a person's income affect his or her education? Shouldn't everyone be given the same educational opportunities when we have a publically funded education system?

No! one of my friends emphatically said. People with large incomes have lots of money because of the choices they made. They chose to get educations and careers in high-paying industries, but those with lower incomes? Well, that was their fault based, also, on the choices they made. The lower-income kids didn't deserve as high-quality of schools as the high-income kids because of the choices their parents made. And, of course, because the higher-income adults paid more taxes, their children deserved a better education and seriously: if the poor people would just stop having so many kids, they'd be better off anyway.

As you can imagine, this discussion sent me for a tailspin. There I was, working as hard as I could to provide for my kids and to educate some of those high-income kids. Choosing to do so. But what I wanted to chose was something completely different. I still wanted to choose to be a stay-at-home mom, but I couldn't.

(I dropped out of that Bunco group a couple of weeks later. It was just too hard to continue feeling like the group's token white trash member.)

I continue to think a lot about choice since that night, and how it influenced who I became. If Kendell had chosen a different career, we would have different financial opportunities. If I had chosen a different degree, I could make much more money than I do as a teacher or a librarian. If I had chosen to just have one or two kids, they would have different options as well.

But that is assuming that everything in my life was a choice, and while I think I have been fairly blessed with opportunities, I know other people are not. What if my parents hadn't prized education and good grades? What if I hadn't had that talk one random Saturday afternoon with my dad, who was a steel worker with a high school diploma, about how badly he hoped I'd go to college? What if I hadn't made the choices I did to turn my messed-up life around?

And this is why I am taking the sides of both Hilary and Ann. On the one hand, Hilary is an idiot if she thinks that being a stay-at-home mom isn't work. It is. It is hard to have small children as your constant companions. As much as I loved it, I also can't sugar-coat its difficulties. It is, I believe, a selfless choice, if  you have the financial means to make it. And to say that a woman who is a stay-at-home mom is unable to learn about financial and economic issues is just downright condescending. Just because a woman doesn't have a career doesn't automatically mean that she isn't able to study, learn, and devise solutions.

On the other hand, Hilary is sort-of right about Ann. Not in the working department, but in the real-life department. She's been blessed with a husband who, through his choices and his opportunities, has always been wealthy. She hasn't felt how it feels to drive away leaving your tiny baby in someone else's care. She hasn't cried out to God asking him why he wouldn't give her that one righteous desire of her heart. She hasn't stood by in bitterness while it seemed everyone else was given the one thing she most desperately wanted. Well, that and expensive boots and fancy haircuts and more purses than one woman could logically ever need.

She might be able to have knowledge about the economic plights of women. She might sympathize with them. But Ann Romney will never be able to have empathy for them and that is, I think, what Hilary Rosen is getting at.

Of course, the more basic problem is this: when we spend time Twitter-bashing each other over our life choices and situations, we are wasting time at finding a real solution. It is also in the assumption that one side or the other (how old is the stay-at-home mom vs. work-outside-the-home mom battle anyway?) has all the answers. We all have to figure it out together, if it really even is possible to figure it out at all. We don't live in a perfect world and nothing is ever going to be completely fair. But drawing lines and taking sides and being rude to each other simply fails every single one of us women. And the generations that will coome after us.


Back when toys made in China started being recalled for excessive amounts of lead, I had this wild idea, culled, no doubt, from reading too much dystopian literature. Maybe all that lead wasn't accidental; maybe it was China's subtle way of trying to control the world. Send American

children cheap, lead-filled toys and voila: you've got a generation of vaguely brain-damaged kids, easily overcome in the future. Of course, there're flaws in the diabolical plan, namely that not everyone buys cheap toys and, of course, the Consumer Products Safety Committee, which makes sure to test all imported toys for lead.

Still, it's a novel I'd read.

At any rate, my point is that of course I'm all for eliminating lead in toys. With my own buying habits, even, I try to avoid items made in China, just in case. (One reason I love Playmobil toys: made in Europe! Not that Germany couldn't adopt the same diabolical plan, but that's a different novel altogether.) But I think the CPSC has taken it just a little bit too far. Its new law, the Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act, is designed to massively increase the testing required for lead in items manufactured for children. The only problem? The law also includes used items, and is retroactive. Meaning, after February 9, it will be illegal for anyone to sell anything, new or used, that hasn't been tested for lead. Goodwill centers, second-hand stores, even garage sales would all be doing illegal trade.

Not to mention libraries.

Because the wording of the law says something vague like "all items for children," books are included. Obviously library books are used. So, come February 10, we've got two options (and by "we" I mean: all libraries that have children's books): pull every. single. children's book. OR we can ban children under twelve.

Great options, right?

When I started reading about this, I thought it was one of those urban-legend kind of things because it sounds so impossibly ridiculous. Especially considering the fact that books test lower for lead than the 2012 requirements. Yet, despite its seeming silliness, it's true. Forbes has a great article on it, explaining the general ideas and why it's such a failure of a law. To see how the law applies specifically to libraries, check this out.

It's really pretty odd that I don't consider myself a political person, and yet here I am, writing my third political-ish post in five days. Maybe I accidentally licked one of those suspicious toys from China, and my brain is manifesting its damage with a marked change in writing topics. Still, even for non-political me, this is simply ridiculous. Maybe it's the politicians who've been licking lead? Seems like a LOT of money is being spent on this legislation, but much of what the law is doing is damaging small resellers.

And libraries!

Come on! Books are good for growing brains, not bad. And, let's see: when was the last time your ten-year-old licked a book anyway? Or your five-year-old for that matter, not to mention the twelve-year-olds. Doesn't everyone wash their hands after reading a library book anyway? The damage from not having access to books is far greater than the tinchy little bit of lead that might be present in a book. And besides, what about those of us who actually own children's books? Are we next on the you-can't-read-that list? Sounds horribly Farenheit 451-ish to me.

So, are you ready for this: Shaky-on-the-politics little ol' me is going to call her congressperson. And if I can call my congressperson, then you definitely can. Even if you're not a fan of libraries, you might be a fan of etsy shops, or buying used books from Amazon, or whatever. We do, of course, need to be protected from lead, but involving logic in the process might be a good bet, yes?

(PS, I can't figure out why Typepad is making my fonts all wonky here. I tried to fix it. Really!)