college, Parenting

MORE COLLEGE PERSPECTIVE

“My mother made me take the SAT six times!” my son’s friend, Jake, announced almost four years ago in the back seat of the car I was driving. The backstory of this announcement was that our dear friend Jake was trying to get into Annapolis. His mom is one of the fiercest mama’s I know and if this was his goal, she was going to help make it happen. 

Getting into Annapolis is no joke. It is a huge accomplishment and with a lot of hard work, perseverance and incredible help (it takes a village for sure), Jake achieved his dream and is about to finish his second year. This is one instance where I don’t roll my eyes at the notion of a SAT repeat, repeat, repeat, you get the point. I mean, come on, ANNAPOLIS, is like Harvard except with many more layers of bad ass.

Meanwhile my son, who was finishing up his junior year of private high school, seemed to be taking the path of least resistance. His first run at his SAT was nothing to scream from the rooftops about, I think it was something in the low 1600’s. Considering his mother took her SATS back in the day perhaps a little on the high side, I mean it was the early eighties and I lived with my father who believed that a sixteen year old should figure herself out by her own errors and judgements. Hence the decision to be baked causing my score to be a number one would expect to see in the movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. More on that some other time.

The only reason our son went to private high school was because I used to volunteer in the lunch room of his public middle school. On more than one occasion, many of his teachers would come up to me and encourage me to allow him to go to one of the private high schools. We took the bait. Though I don’t regret it, I know he would have done excellent at our local high school. Michael is a smart young man. He makes good decisions, always has. He is the type of kid who people say things like, “He’s going to go places.” But he is also the type of kid who does what he needs to get by. He was not the type who would join every group and club because it would look good on his college application. He was also not the type of student that would take the SAT again just to get a better score hoping that the college of his dreams would accept him. I distinctly remember his saying this profound statement at his senior year when he was applying to the five schools expected of him by said private school, “If the only reason I don’t get into the college is because of my SAT scores, then the college is not for me.”

This type of comment from my son was not surprising to me. When he was around three, he was in a private home day care around the corner from our house. Often I would walk him in the stroller or maybe we walked, I can’t remember now, but he would refuse to put on his coat. For some reason, I went with it. “Ok, you don’t want to wear a coat, your choice.” And off we went. I was taking him to a house filled with mammas, and my son showing up with no coat on a brisk day could cause judgement and eye rolls, lots of potential tsk tsks. I was seldom the mom who got sucked into that vortex. I was usually an outlier type mom. My son knew his own body temperature. His dad never wore a coat, he ran hot always so I just guessed that my son had the same body heat. I think these small decisions as a parent over time allowed me to be more accepting of his laissez faire attitude when we got closer to the college application circus we found ourselves in.

A circus indeed. At the same time he was applying to college, I had decided to take some classes at our local private university. At the first and only class I took there, I was surrounded by mostly white kids, they looked mostly the same, most from New Jersey, New York or Connecticut. These kids were uninterested in the class, many of them texting while the instructor was offering valuable information. This university was almost 45k per year and these kids were ambivalent, entitled almost. I couldn’t take it. So off I went to Rhode Island College for some classes where I found a diverse population, many kids who were there for the price, or as first generation college attendees. These kids were hungry for learning and I am guessing many of them held full time jobs while trying to get through their classes. Impressive and I had a new found appreciation of our local state colleges and universities.

Meanwhile my son was getting acceptance letters from four of the five schools he applied to. He could have gone to an out of state school for an extra 25k more per year then our in state colleges, not counting the travel back and forth for holidays and every time there was a hurricane warning. But with his unique wisdom, he was not sucked into the bragging fest. He was and still is pragmatic and frugal. His father and I were offering him a free ride at University of RI because that was what we could afford so that he would be able to leave college debt free, if he chose this path. Should he have decided to go to the out of state program, he would have had to take on some loans, so much harder to start his young life with after graduation.

I met a professor from Brown one day who told me that she had a student who was a first generation college attendee who managed to get into Brown the old fashioned way, by actually applying and getting accepted on her merit. She also had to take on student loans that would make your head spin. At the time of graduation she was burdened with over 150K in tuition debt. It is shameful that our colleges are even allowing this. The pressure to get a job right out of school so that they can begin paying their debt down is catastrophic to our children’s futures and their creativity potential. For what? So they can for four years say they went to a fancy school? I am not saying that kids shouldn’t go to these other schools at all. If they can afford them, if their parents can afford them without taking on home equity loans and burdens of debt that make them have to work well past retirement.

Our son gets to leave college with no debt because he had two parents who work hard, saved money and offered him this final gift in his young life. Neither of his parents finished college. We learned trades. Skills. And this has done well by us. I have always said that college shouldn’t be the only directive for our children. We should be allowing them the freedom to discover what ignites their passion and SUPPORT it without feeling like they are failures.

When I dropped out of college and chose the path of esthetics, aka beauty school, I thought my grandparents who were like my parents, were going to kill me. They were not happy. But I persevered; after all it was my life, my money. My problem was the outside forces who try to make our kids feel bad if they decide to go a different path or choose a community college or state university because it is what they can afford. I say bravo every time I speak to one of my son’s friends who have chosen to go to Community College of RI for two years to save money. Of all of the choices, these are the smartest ones. NO DEBT, this is what we should be teaching our children. This is a way better gift then bribing their way into a prestigious university with a brand name.

I think it is time we look at what we are teaching our children by forcing them to choose college as the only path. I know that life is harder without a degree, but I also know that pigeon holing our children from the time they are in kindergarten to think that college is the end all, we are doing a major disservice to the creativity that lies within each of our children. We should be working harder to develop their passions, juices, their entrepreneurial spirits, their community activism. College isn’t for everyone and clearly with this latest scandal it shouldn’t be.

Michael and his friend Jacob way before college became the thing it became.

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MISS FOLEY

MISS FOLEY

White hair, knobby knees, beige leather shoes, the kind that you have to be fitted for because of problem feet. Support stockings, plaid wool skirt, sour face, tall and scary, strong like vibe and not in a healthy female way but in a I never got laid, I’m probably never going to get laid but I need to get laid kind of way. (This is mean, I know)

Flashback 1971 wearing my yellow calico print frilly dress with a matching purse that my mother bought me at some hip place like Saks or something, little petticoat built in so the ruffles showed at the bottom. I loved that dress. It was one of those dresses you swirled around in, like a dancer with the cool air hitting your upper thighs. It was a girly frilly dress and I was six years old.

In 1971, at Tansey Elementary School in Fall River, Mass, (a public school by the way) despite the revolutionary climate of the times, Tansey had not gotten the memo. Boys and girls were not allowed to play together outside during recess. Girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school yet and jeans were not even in the radar. The boys were playing kickball or soccer or something “male appropriate” on the other side of the fence. The girls were following their gender protocol by playing hopscotch or jump rope or some girl game we were forced into playing before public elementary schools caught up with Women’s Lib. Before Title 9.

I decided to show off my newly learned headstand, a big feat for a six year old, surely. Bend down, head to ground, tripod first, steady. Lift off. What a sight. On my head, beautiful pose with my frilly dress up to my ears and my white cotton underwear out there for the world to see, or rather the boys on the other side of the fence to come dashing over breaking from their game to see my fabulous headstand. The attention was grand. They were looking at my prowess as a six year old headstander, certainly not my underwear, right? I mean I was six years old, printed underwear with the cartoon of the day hadn’t even been invented yet. Christ, thong underwear and pushup bras hadn’t even been invented yet. Why would a bunch of elementary school boys come rushing over to look at a six year old girl’s white brief underwear? Thankfully the thought wasn’t even in my radar. Not until Miss Foley placed it there because the next thing was hand grabbing, marching, no more recess, fear embarrassment. The old Mean Miss Foley had me tightly by the hand delivering me like a prostitute to the principal, Miss Lenahan. Miss Lenahan was the antithesis of Miss Foley. Kind, soft, loving and grandmotherly like. I was humiliated.

“Do you know what she did outside!!!????” her mean face getting meaner with that familiar twisted scour. I can’t remember as I write this if I had a thought for a fleeting moment that the headstand was the reason, the elegant handstand that I had been practicing endlessly I was being brought to the gallows for. Before I could even have a moment to consider my offense, my dress was pulled up from my hemline to my chest exposing my underwear and my belly button. This act was to demonstrate the actual placement of my frock while I was doing something so obviously shameful. Miss F. went on to explain the horrors of my actions to my beloved Mrs. Lenahan. I am sure there were tears but what I recall the most was the shame and embarrassment about showing my body so innocently. Remember this was 1971 and the differences between old tenured teachers at the time and my 25 year old semi yoga practicing hippy walk around naked parents was quite apparent even to a six year old.

I don’t think my mother was even called. Back then teachers could do these outlandish things in the name of propriety. My mother never had any idea of this traumatic event that would stay with me until 2005 when I wrote this piece. Teachers’ ability to exploit their power had profound effects on our school experiences that our parents never even knew. Goodness knows what would happen now if this same situation occurred. This wasn’t even a private Catholic school, this was a public school.

Flash ahead. Spelling test 1972. Miss Foley as the dictator walking around class like an SS officer barking out the words we were writing down on our lined paper with our number two pencils. I was and still am an excellent speller. In 1971, good spelling, like good penmanship was a badge of honor and so was memorizing the addition and multiplication tables. It is surprising I am a good speller since the way it was taught back then was zero tolerance. No, not bringing a gun to school or saying you are going to blow up first grade with a bomb you made out of playdough and Elmer’s. Zero tolerance for a most heinous crime, spelling errors.

It goes like this. You hear the word, you write it down. Oops, you made a mistake. You write the word ‘Kind’ with a C instead of a K for example (after all this is second grade, words were simple). You realize your error during the spelling test, you erase it, you fix it. Still wrong. No arguing, no negotiating. This is 1970 at Tansey Elementary School in Fall River, Mass and it may as well have been 1930. Mean Miss Foley would smack her lips with glee with the knowledge that Miss perfect speller would be getting at least one wrong on this spelling test.

Last Miss Foley memory, 1973 or 74 now. I am a big shot third grader secure with my teacher Miss Dunn who later became Mrs. Manchester finally free of Miss Foley’s second grade gestapo command. For some reason I managed to get my hands on a forbidden jawbreaker certainly without Ann’s permission for two reasons. The no candy in the morning rule which by the way included the no sugar cereal ever in the house rule and the no candy at school rule.

Well we weren’t in class yet so technically as my young clever mind rationalized as only a seven or eight year old can do when it comes to candy decision making, the jawbreaker found its way into my little mouth and my moving body. Uh oh. The jawbreaker found its way into my throat, stuck. Like a Leave it to Beaver episode, this is a problem. Choke- die. Let someone know I am choking- get bagged for the candy, Ann finds out. I realize I am probably more afraid of my mother finding out I broke the no sugar in the morning rule than I am of choking or in this case dying. Body reacts, coughing, red face, blocked airway. Uh oh the beige shoes are coming at me, quick- this jawbreaker must come out. Smash plop. Divine intervention, just in time for you know who to discover my deviant act.

“Are you all right?” she asks with a disappointed tone. After all the candy is not actually in my mouth so I couldn’t really legally get in trouble for possession. “Yes.” I say somewhat relieved I didn’t die. “Hmmfff,” she grunts, “shouldn’t have been eating candy in the morning anyway.”

G-d Damn it I hate it when Ann is right.

Miss Foley has definitely died by now, she was likely an old sixty something back in 1971. Writing this piece was a huge catharsis for me. It released my safe and controlled writing style into the fiery and vulnerable writing it is today. As I retyped this piece today I also came to some other conclusions. Maybe the struggles I have had with my waist down body image (I haven’t yet written about but this is coming) has a direct connection to the lifting of my dress over 47 years ago. I also have considered that maybe she didn’t like me because I was Jewish. I’ll never know and I don’t need to because here’s the thing about writing; shit comes out. Sticky old dried up useless crap gets released and frees my writing soul so that it can fill back up with better words.

I can’t necessarily forgive Miss Foley’s actions because no one needs to be mean to accomplish learning especially someone 1/8 their size but I forgive her for being born in the earlier part of the century. I forgive her for not having the choices that only come with the changes in time. I am amazed as I rewrite this at the potent realization of how teachers have the ability to exploit their immense power over little children. Maybe one of the reasons I am a good writer (and speller) is because of miss Foley’s strict approach. I also wonder how much she fucked up some of the other unfortunate children who had learning disabilities and reading difficulties prior to their discovery who likely never recovered.

I have been fortunate to have experienced caring loving and kind teachers who were encouraging to my writing, but Miss Foley was not one of them. The good news is I didn’t give her my power. I stored some of it away in that tiny vault in my tiny body keeping it safe for its discovery thirty-five years later in 2005 when I wrote this piece in Hannah Goodman’s writing class. Hannah made me write this. She is one of the great ones.


The first of 4 handwritten pages in 2005 in my first Hannah Goodman writing class that got strict and cranky Miss Foley right out of me.

I haven’t stopped since.