Backpack ban. For real?

No drinks. No boomerangs, No backpacks. No...circus ringmaster jackets?

No drinks. No boomerangs, No backpacks. No…circus ringmaster jackets?

My 12 year old son, Levi, will be starting middle school in August at a brand new public school. We’re all excited and nervous and trying to figure out how life operates in this totally unknown environment. Up till now, he’s been highly sheltered by our local private Jewish day school.

There’s a steep learning curve here and I admit it is causing us some anxiety. LIke the other day, for instance, he was perusing the district web site and confronted me in a panic.

“Mom,” he voiced fearfully, “It says on the website that kids are prohibited from carrying backpacks on campus.”

“Levi,” I responded with a doubtful glance, “That’s ridiculous. I’m sure you didn’t read it accurately. I mean, how are you supposed to carry your stuff to school? Picnic basket?”

He assured me that what he had seen had been real and urged me to call the district office to confirm it. His anxiety was growing and I figured that calling the office was the perfect way to allay his concerns. “Hello,” I started to the kindly woman who answered the phone, “I’m a parent of a new student who will be coming to your school in the fall and my son saw something on your website about backpacks not being allowed on campus. I know that sounds rather crazy. So I just wanted to check and make sure that he misunderstood whatever he thought he read.”

“Um…I’m not really sure what to tell you,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. “Can you hold for a moment?” Then she disappeared for like three minutes and I waited, wondering if she was using the same trick my insurance company uses every time I call to check on a benefit. I like to call it the “indefinite hold tactic.” It’s when certain organizations systematically put you on hold forever, knowing you’ll eventually get so frustrated you’ll hang up and decide it’s easier to just pay whatever remaining balance they insist you still have, even though you’ve already paid them three times already. But I digress.

Finally she returned, “The backpack rule is a campus by campus decision and I’m afraid no one at the district can give you the backpack requirements for an individual school. You’ll have to wait till the school reopens for the school year to call and inquire about it.”

“But…I mean…Are you saying there may be some rule against students carrying backpacks?” I’m stammering at this point because this sounds as silly to me as if she told me that number 2 pencils were being outlawed.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to call the school after July 22nd,” she curtly ended the conversation.

Baffled by this, I started to do some research and found that yes, backpacks have been items-non-grata at schools across the country for over a decade. Huh?

I found articles as far back as 2003 explaining the dangers of backpacks containing concealed weapons, drug paraphernalia, even bombs. The answer to some lunatic potentially stuffing a bomb into a backpack? No more backpacks. Maybe it’s me, but that sounds like the most inane answer to school violence and drug abuse that I have ever heard.

But that wasn’t all I discovered. There were other equally lame reasons for prohibiting the dreaded back carriers. The Academy of Orthopedic surgeons had come out with some declaration a few years back about the risks of long-term back and neck injuries and posture problems from kids hauling around overweight backpacks.

Other schools had outlawed backpacks because, and I’m not making this up, they proved to be dangerous threats to teacher safety both inside the classroom and in the corridors of learning. Apparently, teachers find themselves tripping over backpack straps on a regular basis during the school day. They also complain that they have been severely injured in the hallways by backpack-clad youngsters racing from one class to the next.

OK, now I am deeply sensitive to teachers’ needs. Teachers deserve all the credit, gratitude and respect we can give. Their jobs are important and critical to our society. However, this is a little bit silly, don’t you think? I mean, are they sashaying down the aisles between desks while reviewing the Spanish American War? Tap dancing around the classroom as they pose thought-provoking questions about Odysseus? Kids can’t carry backpacks because teachers are tripping over them en masse? Maybe we need to have an in-service day focused on cautious strolling protocol.

And one more question: in what, pray tell, are our children supposed to carry their personal items, notebooks and other school supplies? Hefty trash bags? One girl somewhere out East faced this very dilemma and started carting her load around in a plastic, yellow sand castle pail. Come on! We have got to get a grip. Yes, someone hid a pressure cooker in a backpack and murdered innocent victims. That’s deplorable and hideous. But banning backpacks wouldn’t have stopped the Boston bombings. Believe me, they would have found another way to hurt people. That’s what evil people do. They figure out ways to destroy and ruin good, unsuspecting people’s lives. We need to address evil, not the outward accoutrements of it.

We didn’t ban underwear after the underwear bomber tried to blow up an airplane. We can’t outlaw every single item that some sick, twisted cretan uses to accomplish some heinous activity. We just can’t. It would be like…like…like…trying to eliminate peanuts from every elementary school in the country. Oh wait, we have done that.

Classroom Socialism

“It’s totally unfair!” my nearly twelve year old son, Levi, railed. “Mrs. Y teaches advanced math and sixth grade science. She gives out these tickets for good behavior that can be redeemed for the most amazing prizes; like dinner and a movie or board games, stuff everybody really wants. But some people have her for both classes. I only have her for science since I’m not in advanced math. So it’s totally unfair. Don’t you think so?”

“Well, not really,” I tentatively began, “What’s unfair about it?”

“Mom,” he rolls his eyes at the sheer inanity of my question, “ The people who only have her for one class can’t earn as many tickets. That’s what’s unfair.”

“But it doesn’t hurt you or take away from your chance to earn tickets that some other people earn more, does it?” I ask, knowing I’m treading on thin ice. “I mean, it may take you longer to earn the prize you want. But that’s how life works. Some people are better at some things than others. Some people earn more money or drive nicer cars or live in fancier houses. Everything isn’t equal. Plus if you really wanted to, you could work harder and be in the advanced math class. But you don’t seem to want to spend the time or effort to do that.”

“Well mom,” my son reasoned, “I am trying to be happy with myself at the level I’m at and not put undo pressure on myself.” I suddenly flashed back to a book a colleague of mine wrote several years ago entitled, “What to Do When Your Kid Is Smarter Than You.” I’ll have to reread that.

“That’s fair, Levi,” I conceded. “But life is what you make it. Nobody owes you equality. If you want to earn more tickets, think of a creative way to do that. Maybe you can stay later or earn extra credit somehow. But moping about unfairness is like buying into a socialist doctrine that we, personally, do not believe in.” I gingerly stepped off my soapbox and waited to see how my remarks had landed.

“Would you like to at least hear my solution?” He asked with a hint of arrogance that made me feel embarrassed for my philosophical outburst.

“Of course,” I nodded.

“Well,” he began, “I raised my hand and told Mrs. Y that I thought her system was unfair for the reasons I mentioned. She thought about it, agreed with me, and decided to amend the system. Now everyone can only earn tickets in one class.” He offered a self satisfied smile that landed like a gentle lob into my court.

I was, I’ll admit, speechless. Finally, I gathered my wits and responded. “Well, Levi, what you may lack in mathematical acumen, you more than make up for in ingenuity and boldness. I gotta hand it to you. You spoke up for yourself and were able to affect change. That’s awesome. I’m proud of you.”

“Really?” he asked doubting my authenticity.
“Really,” I answered. “Life will always set up obstacles for you to overcome. You used your intelligence, determination and creativity to do that. It’s like my dad used to say to me, ‘You can do anything if you put your mind to it.’” Then I thought about all the kids who had ostensibly been demoted to single classroom point earners.

“But just to be safe,” I added, “Let me show you how to throw a right hook in case any of those double point people come looking for you.”

Classroom reflections

“Your child is a genius,” she said. “I’ve never met anyone like him. He’s so smart and funny and creative and sensitive. He’s as kind as the day is long. What a gift! Well, you know what they say; the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

I blush humbly and murmur a gratious “thank you.” “He is a special kid,” I say with a sense of total fulfillment, knowing that my child is accepted, admired and adored for whom he is.


Why is it that each and every one of us expects our parent/teacher conferences to go according to the above script? And they never do. Yet somehow this dichotomy between what we want to happen and the reality of the situation still manages to depress, demoralize and dishearten us to a point of abject despair. I’ve spoken to so many parents this week about post parent/teacher conference despondency that I’m petitioning the American Psychiatric Association to add it to the DSM-5 which is due out in May of 2013.

As an actor, I liken parent/teacher conferences to those much anticipated, highly regarded theatre reviews we all dread and crave simultaneously. Most actors I know refuse to read them at all. Reason being, (and I am borrowing a line from the very obscure rockers, The Bacon Brothers), “When they’re bad, they’re really bad. And when they’re good, they’re not good enough.” You walk into those conferences expecting a rave, only to be panned and find out you’re shutting down the show well before your scheduled closing date.

I have to confess that this year’s conferences were the best ever for me. But I think that has to do with managing expectations more than anything else. These types of conferences are a way for astute, observant teachers to give parents feedback about their child’s study skills, classroom habits, and behavior. As parents, we can learn a lot from them. But rule number one is to remember that they are always going to offer suggestions for improvement. After all, nobody’s perfect, not even your child. While we parents may understand this intellectually, it stills feels icky to have someone outside the clan verbalize the myriad of faults exhibited by our little snuggle bunnies. (Kind of like how it’s okay for me to make fun of my family of origin, but you’d better seek protection if you’re planning on making them the butt of your own humor.)

Parents need to remember that it’s a teacher’s job to make our kids better, smarter, more functional people. This does not happen by positive feedback alone. Simple comments like, “Your child doesn’t do his best work,” or “Your daughter talks too much in class,” or “Your son blurts out the answers and inhibits the other children,” are all jam-packed with learning potential if we allow them to be. Even the dreaded, “Your child needs an assessment,” remark that sends even the most even-keeled parents into a frenzy, can be a call to action that generates tremendous positive results.

The truth is, we want our kids to be perfect. So when well meaning teachers use brutal honesty to tell us about our kids, it’s like holding up a mirror that highlights our own tragically flawed reflections. We get angry, oversensitive and defensive.

So here’s my suggestion du jour when you’re facing your next parent/teacher conference: take a breath, really listen, and then put on your big girl panties and try to see how you might help your child learn whatever lesson’s being presented. After all, it wont be the first time your child is faced with a critical assessment of his or her skills and capabilities. And I guarantee, it wont be the last.

May the force be with(in) you

Lots of good Jedi's end up on the dark side

My husband, the Pediatrician, is a genius. No, really, he is. After years of insulting him with my favorite line; “do people actually pay you for this kind of advice?”, I am now going to officially eat crow, or my hat, or whatever it is that people eat in the name of contrition.

Our six-year-old son Eli came home today with a “reflection note.” That’s the equivalent of “getting your card turned,” “striking out,” or any other number of euphemisms for “screwing up in class.” He was beside himself. Made Alexander of the no good, horrible, very bad day look like Polyanna.
“I’m never going back to school,” he whined as he climbed into the backseat of my car. “Why don’t you tell me exactly what happened,” I suggested in the most evenly modulated voice I could muster. “Well, Andrew and I were spitting…” he started. “Okay,” I lost my compusure, “Spitting? At someone? At each other? Why would you do something like that?”

“We just wanted to see where the spit would land by our feet. We weren’t spitting at anyone. We didn’t even get a warning,” he lamented. I have to admit I felt better. At least they weren’t being mean to each other or to some other hapless child.

“Okay,” I offered, “Now you know that spitting is wrong and I very much hope you will never do that again.”

“I wont,” he exclaimed, “Even if Andrew says I should.”

“What do you mean ‘Even if Andrew says you should?’” I asked.

“Well,” he explained, “Andrew is my master. I have to do whatever he tells me to do.”

Okay, panic attack number two. “Your master?” I challenged. I was starting to sweat.

I then tried unsuccessfully to explain about Lemmings or Lemurs and cliff jumping activities. Nothing seemed to penetrate. The horror of thinking my youngest son was nothing more than a follower was overwhelming to me. I suddenly envisioned him, hash pipe in his manacled hands, trying to explain to some apathetic arbiter in a dark civil servant’s office that he only sold the drugs to the innocent kindergarteners because his friend told him to do it.

Luckily, we arrived at the restaurant to meet his father in the nick of time. “There’s Daddy!” I announced with relief. We went in and took our seats. Eli was still pouting heartily. “Would you like to tell daddy what happened today?” I prodded. Eli reluctantly shared his shameful tale. My husband, Mark, frowned and offered the requisite disappointed response. “But that’s not really the issue,” I went on. I then prompted Eli to divulge his friend Andrew’s “master” status. “Whatever Andrew tells me to do,” Eli boasted, “I have to do. Because he’s my master.”
Now this was one of those moments where every bit of wisdom I’d been carrying around in my imaginary parent backpack had mysteriously vanished into thin air. I stared at Mark, hoping that both of us were not being struck dumb at the same moment. His eyes landed on me for a moment and then, without missing a beat, he turned to Eli and said, “Wow. That’s really scary.”

Eli took the bait. “What do you mean, daddy?”

“Well,” Mark went on, fully cognizant that the word “master” had weighty Jedi implications that had alluded me altogether. “You can never be sure if a master is really looking out for your best interests. A lot of masters start out fighting with the force but end up crossing over to the dark side. And the masters who’ve gone over to the dark side will act like they’re your friends, but they may really be trying to get you to come to the dark side. I mean, think about it; Darth Vader, Darth Plagueis, Count Dooku, they all started out in the light. But for whatever reason, they crossed over. That’s why you have to listen to your own heart and do what feels right. You can’t follow a master because you never know where that master may lead you.”

Eli thought about this for a long time. I must admit, I was more than a little impressed with my husband’s seamless spontaneity. If this works, I thought, it may be one of the all time most brilliant parenting maneuvers I have ever witnessed.

“Dad,” Eli asked thoughtfully. “Can I still be Andrew’s friend?”

“Of course, sweetheart,” my husband smiled victoriously. “Just remember, young Jedi; if you follow your own inner voice, the force will always be with you.”

School supply shopping is now a full-contact sport

school supplies

Ah...the dreaded back-to-school shopping list

Ah, shopping for school supplies. Is there anything…worse? It is truly one of life’s most horrible experiences. First of all, why do they need so damn much? I mean, honestly, are they really gonna use one pencil a week for the next 36 weeks? That’s a lot of lead. Isn’t that like bad for the environment or something? To add insult to injury, one mom I know told me that she had to individually write her kid’s name on each and every pencil. I thought she was joking. I mean, please. Have we resorted to purchasing pricey designer number 2 pencils nowadays? Who gives a crap if your kid uses the wrong pencil? And the stuff really adds up fast. It was probably wrong to tell my son he could have the Mario Wii game if we netted out at under $100. His subsequent tantrum was rather embarrassing I must admit. After he composed himself he looked at our $160 stash and said, “School costs enough. I think the teachers should just buy all the school supplies themselves and give them to students.”

Of course I used that as a teachable moment to launch into a diatribe about the shattered state of education in the country (and particularly within our own state confines) and shared with him the rather disturbing fact that Nationwide, teachers earn a whopping .88 for every dollar earned by those in “comparable” positions.* This might have gone over my 9-year-old’s head.

But back to the chaos of the school supply aisle. It reminded me of Passover shopping on Devon Avenue at Hungarian when I was a little kid growing up in Chicago. (While this image may only be accessible to a few of you, it is such a perfect analogy that I had to include it.) Only instead of large Jewish women with short, complacent husbands body checking me in the macaroon aisle, here we had hordes of over-privileged children violently grabbing the last few packs of sharpened pencils, staplers and highlighters with absolutely no regard for personal space, safety or courtesy. And their parents were even worse.

One lady literally raced me to the dry-erase pen section after I foolishly pointed out its whereabouts to my dazed son who’d been up and down the aisles three or four times without spotting them. She took the very last package of pens. “Um, excuse me,” I politely announced. “My son was on his way over to get those. I believe you heard me direct him to this section, and then you ran over here before he could get here and took the last package of pens. Don’t you think you’re being a little too competitive?”

“Hey,” she smiled with self-satisfaction, “You snooze, you loose.”

I thought about smacking her upside the head.

But then I decided that her husband was probably a personal injury attorney, (no offense, Barry), and that she’d end up suing me for like 18 million dollars because I somehow managed to puncture her breast implant while attempting to kick her in the teeth. It just…wasn’t worth it.

For a brief psychotic moment I thought about taking both of my children to purchase their school supplies at the same time. But, seeing as I’m organizationally challenged and probably undiagnosed ADHD, the image of myself hopelessly trying to follow two diverse lists, while fighting off insurgent parents and checking off appropriate list items as they landed in my cart was a little too much for me. Instead, I made it a “fun” mommy and me outing for each child individually, complete with a post shopping trip to the local fro yo shop.

While the signature tart, fat free, icy treat (that I insisted in smothering with Heath Bar sprinkles) did help to somewhat lessen the post traumatic stress reaction I was experiencing, truth be told, it barely took the edge off. What I needed was a Ketel One, double Martini, not too dry, just a little dirty if I was to go home and return to the battle field with child number two.

Luckily it was too close to bedtime to play out the second half of this cutthroat educational acquisition competition. We tabled it for the night. But let me tell you, come tomorrow morning, I am gonna be a force to be reckoned with. So if you see me coming down the aisle, accordion folder in hand, please, for the love of God, get the hell out of my way.

*Incidentally, “comparable” positions according to the report by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center (EPE) includes reporters, insurance underwriters, and even museum curators to name a few. The report also noted that it is, in fact, teaching quality that matters more than anything else in a child’s education, and astutely added that a child’s likelihood of succeeding in life depends greatly on which state he or she is born into since education varies so erratically from state to state.